My favorite epigram is from Voltaire: the perfect is the enemy of the good. I like the way it encapsulates a deep truth, that nothing is perfect, that fault can always be found, that often doing one’s imperfect best is what matters.

Sometimes I feel really discouraged that so much of the U.S. progressive movement operates on a countervailing principle: if it isn’t perfect, don’t do it.

Case in point: as anyone who follows even a bit of social media knows by now, Starbucks, the coffee-shop giant, launched a “talking about race” initiative and a short time later, cancelled it.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz kicked off the “Race Together” initiative with an explanation:

We at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America. Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are. … [I]t is an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time.

Here are the 10 questions baristas were encouraged to pose to customers. Most are fill-in-the-blanks about experiences, such as: “My parents had __ friends of a different race.”

On 22 March, a week after Starbucks’ full-page New York Times ad launched the campaign – a week marked by a firestorm of social media criticism – Schultz quietly quashed it.

Criticism from the right was mostly along the lines that customers would now be “forced” to enter into unwanted political conversations as part of the price of a cup of joe. Politics and commerce don’t mix (except when you lobby for the right to refuse service to LGBT people – that’s different).

From the left, it was segmented. Sometimes, I agreed: the conversation ought to be about racism, the problem, not about race. Some of the questions were inept. Some people of color complained that now they would have to explain the history of racial oppression to some white barista as the price of a cup of joe. Some groups focusing on racial justice said Starbucks should have come to them instead of striking out with its own ideas.

Often, watching this unfold, I thought of Voltaire. For instance, many individuals and groups said that if Starbucks really cared about racial justice, they’d do a better job at hiring both executives and line workers and compensating baristas fairly. Color lines put out this chart, noting only 16% people of color among Starbucks top executives; others counted differently and came up with 21%. Either way, it falls short of even the conservative Census estimate of about 30 percent (more if you include all Hispanic/Latino and multiracial persons, regardless of complexion). (I only see three women, but that’s another conversation.)

No argument with the assertion that they are obliged to do better. I just don’t get doing better as a prerequisite for raising the topic. The upshot of shaming and ridiculing Starbucks out of its clumsily named “Race Together” initiative is to discourage it and other large, mostly white organizations from even trying to raise the topic of racism in the U.S.

Would you volunteer for target practice?

My friend who works full time on issues of racial justice pointed out that Starbucks’ record is actually better in terms of leadership demographics than many so-called progressive groups.Last year, Diverse Green published a report on The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. Here’s a link to the summary and a couple of salient statements:

b. Despite the growth in the ethnic minority population in the U.S., the percentage of minorities on the boards or general staff of environmental organizations does not exceed 16% in the three types of institutions studied [conservation and preservation organizations, government environmental agencies, and environmental grantmaking foundations].

c. Once hired in environmental organizations, ethnic minorities are concentrated in the lower ranks. As a result, ethnic minorities occupy less than 12% of the leadership positions in the environmental organizations studied.

Despite the easy availability of this information, little of the public scorn heaped on Starbucks for daring – however ineptly – to risk talking about racism has fallen on these groups or other large, predominantly white progressive organizations whose records are worse than Starbucks.(And by the way, the Diverse Green report also found male-dominated leadership in the organizations it studied.)

Why not? Reviewing the events of March, one has to conclude that they get a free pass simply by not trying to do anything public about it.

I don’t have ten questions, but in conclusion, let me pose three worth pondering:

If white supremacy needs to be dismantled by white people alongside people of color, how is this effort helped by rejecting largely white organizations’ attempt to raise the subject?

Should all organizations with too many white executives (and other characteristics that signal racial injustice) refrain from launching efforts to talk about racism until they get their own houses in order? And if so, (a) when will that be; and (b) how does that help?

Should largely white left organizations get a free pass for ongoing bad demographics as long as they don’t publicly claim to be doing something about it? If so, how does that help? And if not, why are we not hearing an outcry comparable to the recent Starbucks brouhaha?

Starbucks’ attempt to raise the question of race and racism was flawed, to be sure. It was ridiculed on every satire show and in nearly every blog and column. The result? Mission accomplished: you won’t be talking about race relations with your barista anytime soon.

But whose mission?

I think the right won on this one, even if the biggest battle was fought on the left.

Some words of comfort from Queen Esther. “Everything Is Going to Be Alright” – I hope.


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