Schultz’s claim he doesn’t ‘see color’ at odds with Starbucks’ 2018 anti-bias training videos

Posted at 5:58 PM, Feb 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-14 20:07:45-05

Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz faced a swift backlash on Tuesday night when he said, in response to a question about race during a CNN town hall, that he doesn’t “see color.”

But his answer is also at odds with a series of 2018 videos produced as part of his own company’s anti-bias training initiative. In the clips, the idea that anyone can move through life blind to race is rejected and, in one video featuring the company’s new CEO, Kevin Johnson, mocked and dismissed. Schultz was the Starbucks chairman at the time.

“Growing up, this term called ‘color blind’ described a learning behavior of pretending not to notice race. That doesn’t even make sense,” Johnson says. “So today we are starting a new journey, talking about race directly — what my friend and Starbucks board member Mellody Hobson calls being ‘color brave.'”

The decision to launch anti-bias training courses followed an embarrassing — and, for many, deeply disturbing — incident in April 2018 at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. The store manager called the police on two African-American men, who were arrested while waiting for an acquaintance. The pair have since settled lawsuits with the city, for a symbolic $1 and the promise of an investment in young entrepreneurs, and the company. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, in a statement at the time, said the arrests “exemplify what racial discrimination looks like in 2018.”

Schultz on Tuesday described his recollection of the incident, as it was reported to him, and its roots in what he described as the “unconscious bias that many of us have based on our own life experience.” It had also, he added, “created a tremendous problem for the company.” The result was a decision to shut down 8,000 Starbucks stores nationwide so employees could go through a half-day-long course that asked them to watch a series of video tutorials and take part in personal discussions about racial bias.

“I didn’t see color as a young boy, and I honestly don’t see color now,” Schultz said during the CNN town hall, describing his formative years “as a young boy in the projects.”

Apparently aware of the criticism following his appearance, Schultz on Wednesday during a stop on his book tour told an audience in Philadelphia, “I said something last night on national TV that I think was misinterpreted, but I’ll try to explain it.”

“I grew up, as I said earlier, in public housing and in a very diverse area where there were about 80-90 families in a building with a single elevator and as a young boy I didn’t see color,” he said. “My parents were not people who in any way were prejudice and that’s how I grew up. And I said something like that last night and it was misinterpreted.”

But Schultz stopped there, not explaining what had been misunderstood about his remark. He then pivoted to talking about “a lot of incitement in many ways by the president of the United States.” His remarks did not address the concerns of critics like Zerlina Maxwell, the director of progressive media for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, who tweeted about her frustrations the morning after CNN’s town hall.

“‘I don’t see color’ is something white people say. Having no color (i.e. Being white) isn’t the default identity,” Maxwell wrote during the town hall. “It’s time for people to start getting how offensive this is.”

In a statement to CNN Thursday, a Schultz spokesperson said, “He meant that he did not see color as a child, but of course he has an adult.”

“It is unfortunate when a few words are used in a way that misrepresent how he really feels and what he believes and do not reflect his fuller life story, especially at a time when racism and hate speech are given license to flourish,” the spokesperson said.

Last year, Schultz told CNBC he delayed announcing his departure from the coffee giant in order to see through the racial bias training. He even appeared in one of the anti-bias training videos himself.

While Schultz didn’t mention being “color blind” in the clip viewed by employees, he did say: “Now we have to also face the fact that there are systemic social problems that we have to deal with, that we have to face. I think this is a moment in time, a critical moment, where we reaffirm our mission.”

Schultz told CNN’s Poppy Harlow last May, “I’ve gone through the training myself. As has the entire leadership team of the company last week. We did that so that we could experience it firsthand.”

One of those videos, also posted online, included a roundtable, led by Mellody Hobson, with the Perception Institute’s Alexis McGill Johnson and Rachel Godsil, and Starbucks employee Fred Roots.

“So a lot of people talk about being color blind. What is it about color blindness that creates a problem?,” Hobson asked Godsil early in one video.

Godsil replied: “Our brains can’t not see people’s different racial categories. That’s the way we’ve grown up to evaluate people. So we can’t turn that off. And this is something that Fred talked about beautifully. It seems to me, from what I hear from my friends who were people of color, they don’t want me to not see them as their full selves, and for many people, their full selves involves a sense of racial identity.”

Hobson, who is close to Schultz and considered an expert on racial issues in the corporate world, gave a TED talk in 2014 entitled, “Color blind or color brave?”

“In my view, color blindness is very dangerous because it means we’re ignoring the problem,” she said.