Dear Starbucks: Black People Do Not Need to Participate in #RaceTogether

Human Rights

Starbucks’ campaign to lead a national conversation on race relations has been met mostly with mockery and scorn, with good reason.

The retail coffee chain’s Sunday advertisement in the New York Times that read, “Shall We Overcome?” might seems innocuous at first glance, even well-meaning. However, the timing of the campaign, as well as the tiresome Santa Clausation of Civil Rights Movement-era freedom songs and its leaders, couldn’t be more offensive and out of touch with the current reality of American race relations dialogue.

What is not explicit in the campaign for interracial dialogue is the fact that black people are the single biggest victims of racist behavior in the United States. Whether it is black people being 21 times more likely to be killed by cops than white people or consistently trailing white Americans when monthly unemployment rates are published by the Department of Labor, the real fight has less to do with dialogue and more to do with implementing systemic changes that minimize anti-blackness and dismantle white supremacy.

Equally important, Starbucks' phrasing, “#RaceTogether,” suggests we can heal the centuries-long wounds of racism by chatting with each other over a latte.


If Starbucks really wants to have a discussion on race, it needs to be between white people only. #RaceTogether doesn’t need black people sharing their views on race. Black people are tired of educating whites about race. There are an infinite number of studies available that articulate the racism we experience, the most recent being the Ferguson report outlining how the city discriminates against its own people, using racist policing to generate revenue for its annual budget. Essentially, Ferguson officials treat black residents like field hands and jail them when they can't pay the fees. The only conversation I’m sure Ferguson residents want to have is with a city official who will dismiss their trumped-up traffic fines and offer them financial compensation for their ill treatment.

Later for a conversation. Talk doesn’t pay for our pain and suffering.

In the case of black people in New York City, we simply don’t want white people racially profiling us when we walk into a store to purchase merchandise. Macy’s in New York agreed to pay $650,000 to settle a state probe into racial profiling allegations at its flagship store in Manhattan. A 2007 study reveals that 47 percent of black Americans believe they have been victims of shopping-while-black. Clearly, little has changed since then. Most recently, a study reveals that black people are 31 times more likely to be pulled over than white drivers are.

I’m not sure how talking to a barista will rectify all of this.  

I, like many black people, don’t want to talk about how we can all live together; people; I just want to be left alone to live in my own skin and not be prosecuted for it. That won’t be solved with a dialogue on race. For black people to live without racism, we have to be respected as human beings and white people need to understand that their racism is not a problem we can fix.

Another issue with race conversations is that it assumes that racism is a symptom of interpersonal interactions and not of white supremacy, the elephant in the room that few white people want to acknowledge. All Americans, regardless of their race, are eligible to participate in racism, whether they want to or not. As a black person in New York City, my race makes me eligible to be a victim of racial profiling by the NYPD more than 80 percent of the time. Whether I want to or not. White people, because they are white, are eligible to be perpetrators of anti-blackness in the form of stop-and-frisk, discriminatory hiring practices, hyper-expulsion of black students and other forms of anti-blackness.

Racism has little to do with a white person wanting to be racist; it is about America’s white supremacist system that empowers white people to practice racism, be it in a police uniform, the HR office of Bank of America, or a retail store where they can racially profile shoppers.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is known to be a progressive corporate voice on social issues like the minimum wage and LGBT rights, and I do believe he is sincere. But I question his approach and co-opting of the civil rights freedom song “We Shall Overcome,” which was sung by black people who risked (and gave) their lives to fight white supremacy. The New York Times advertisement effectively waters down the violence that people who sang that song experienced during protests against social justice and anti-blackness.

Instead of advertising their own silly corporate hashtag, it would have been better for Starbucks to advertise to seek copyright support of the three women who created the slogan and started the movement #BlackLivesMatter and print that in the New York Times. This phrase is much more time-specific, resonates with more black people, and is used by young black millennials who are marching in Ferguson and the rest of the country to fight municipal and law enforcement abuse that preys on vulnerable black communities.

Protesters who were shot at, tear-gassed, arrested and roughed up by police are people who need to lead conversations about racism, not Starbucks baristas.

Sponsoring the three women who are leading #BlackLivesMatter, among other social justice groups, with financial and logistical support would be far more useful than labeling cups and leading discussions on race that will do little to hold racist city governments like Ferguson and police departments like the NYPD accountable.

White people, from Bill Clinton on down, have been leading conversations on racism and none of them have gone anywhere. We have been fighting for liberation for centuries, but white people have refused to listen to us, arguing that our situation is not as bad as we say it is. So I think there is little Starbucks can do to lead a conversation on race that would benefit any black American.  

Honestly, I doubt if there is anything left for us to say on the matter that we haven’t said a million times before.

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