Enact and Legislate the Change You Want to Be

While discussing Starbucks’ attempt to foster ‘conversations’ about race, David Shih makes an excellent point (boldface mine):

Above, Starbucks lays out a simple plan for “change” that begins with “conversation.” Conversation ostensibly leads to empathy, which is really supposed to get the ball rolling. However, if the goal of “Race Together” is meaningful antiracist change, then its plan is exactly backward. Authentic relationships and the real conversations that develop from them are, on the whole, the result of institutional, antiracist change, not the catalyst. Do the black mother and the white mother living next door to each other become friends only because they decide to talk to one another? Or because their neighborhood was integrated by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, legislation brought about by organized protest movements? At college, does the interracial couple even meet in the first place if not for the desegregation and Ethnic Studies movements? Institutional change creates the conditions for good relationships, not the other way around.

Starbucks seems to have fallen for the Kumbaya Fallacy (boldface added):

That’s a foolish strategy, and it’s what I call the Kumbaya Fallacy. During the 80s and 90s, there was a popular revisionist version of the history of the Civil Rights movement that claimed that we all one day just realized that denying black people the vote and lynching was bad and that it needed to stop (i.e., we just held each others hands ’round the campfire and began singing Kumbaya).

Not exactly. The Civil Rights movement shamed enough people into forcing the end of segregation–often at the point of a federalized guardsman’s bayonet. If the Civil Rights movement had waited to convince the overwhelming majority of Americans of the justness of its cause, black people still wouldn’t be able to vote. There will always be those who don’t want to face reality, whether it be cynical self-interest, fear, or slavish devotion to a worldview. No mystical or mythical incantation of the right, focus-group tested, perfect phrase will alter this. The effort would be far better spent politically organizing.

The reason many people focus on conversations as opposed to action is because talk, as the saying goes, is cheap (politically and economically). If Starbucks decried the Republican efforts to make voting harder, that would be economically inconvenient. Needless to say, Starbucks, whose workforce is forty percent minority, isn’t calling for a $12*/hour minimum wage–or even just mandating one at all of its stores.

Enact the change you want to be.

*Never mind $15/hr.

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2 Responses to Enact and Legislate the Change You Want to Be

  1. Min says:

    Well, institutions are not enough, either. The republican institutions of the Romans remained in place, even after it had become a dictatorship. The institution of legally mandated racial segregation has fallen, but we still have systemic racism. That is not an obvious idea to many people who do not feel its force in their lives. We are seeing a return of voter suppression which is aimed at minority voters, but it does not justify itself based upon race. Neither did voter suppression under Jim Crow.

    Ideas matter. It is necessary to show the hypocrisy of modern voter suppression. It is necessary to explain how systemic racism works. We have to talk about these things. Any national conversation has to talk about these things.

    One persistent problem of the Left, it seems, is the prevalence of holier than thou attitudes. We are quick to criticize each other. That process can be helpful, but it is often destructive. It is easy to criticize Starbucks’ “Race Together” slogan and its naivete. It is not in the social change business. But, according to its web site, it has already started an internal conversation about racism in open forums in five cities. If I were a social activist in one of those cities, you bet I would be asking Starbucks to host community forums about racism, instead of blaming them for not doing enough.

    Shih talks about empathy as though he did not know what it means, as though it is about sympathy and Kum bah yah. Empathy is about entering into the emotions of others (or of art), about understanding, about, as the saying goes, walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. In our de facto segregated society, we are not going to change its systemic racism until that racism becomes real to those who do not experience it directly themselves. That will not happen without empathy. It will not happen without conversation.

    The Starbucks initiative is not a solution, nor does it claim to be. What is the point of criticizing it for what it is not?

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