Is it problematic for Schultz to claim "I honestly don't see color now"?

Is “color-blindness” in American society a virtue or a vice? Former Starbucks CEO and prospective presidential candidate Howard Schultz told a CNN town hall that “I honestly don’t see color now” while explaining the actions he took to deal with an incident of “racial profiling” by employees in a Philadelphia location. That remark, shorn of the three minutes of context preceding it, prompted criticism that Schultz was pandering to white voters:

“As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background as a young boy in the projects, I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now,” Schultz said at a CNN town hall moderated by Poppy Harlow.

Schultz was responding to a question from the audience about a racial profiling incident that occurred at a Starbucks location in Philadelphia in April 2018. Two black men were arrested while waiting for a friend in the store after the store manager called the police on them. The company shut down thousands of stores to conduct anti-bias training as a result.

“Injustice in America of any kind — especially racial injustice, which continues — is not something that we should be proud of and we need to resolve,” Schultz responded, when asked if he worried that this incident would be an issue for voters.

The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott took exception to Schultz’ remark. Scott wrote that professing color-blindness “displayed a troubling ignorance about race”:

But to adequately address racial issues, you have to see race.

Research has shown there’s no such thing as being colorblind — and that suggesting otherwise can result in discriminatory policies. “ ‘I don’t see color’ is the staple answer of white people who refuse to understand what racism is,” author Anand Giridharadas tweeted. “When a great many people are being burned, not seeing fire is no virtue.” …

Schultz’s comment on being colorblind will likely appeal to the white suburban voters he’s trying to court. But if the businessman wants to convince voters, particularly voters of color, that he can move the United States passed the race-related problems exacerbated by President Trump, he’ll have to show that he’s knowledgeable about the challenges that people of color in the country regularly battle. Without awareness, there is no real confidence that Schultz will be able to solve the problem.

That’s not a position entirely without merit in general, but it overlooks three minutes of Schultz essentially agreeing with Giridharadas. Recall what Schultz did to “solve the problem” at Starbucks, as he recounts in the full clip. He shut down the entire chain for a day — to some ridicule at the time — in order to conduct mandatory training on dealing with the issue of “unconscious bias.” Schultz declares that we need to have “uncomfortable conversations” about “unconscious bias,” and that we need to reach out to others to understand its impact from their point of view. Schultz couldn’t be singing more from the same hymnal as Scott and Giridharadas even if he had an organist accompanying him on stage.

Pulling the one quote out of context does a disservice to Shultz, but more to the point, it demonstrates why such conversations at this level are usually dead ends. Rather than acknowledging all of Schultz’ efforts which he was describing in this response and treating the one comment with some good faith in that context, Scott and other critics immediately assumed the worst of Schultz. If Shultz gets no credit or grace after all he did to address and confirm the very issues that these critics raise, what incentive does anyone else have to engage in that process?

It is too glib to merely pronounce color-blindness without any recognition of the historical and acute hardships that have led up to our present moment. That’s something I learned as well when researching Going Red, and it’s why conservatives fail to gain much traction with African-American and Hispanic communities. We assume that we know people whose communities we largely ignore, and quote Martin Luther King’s speech about the color of one’s skin without having put any skin in the game.

However, the end goal here should be to aspire to a society where color no longer matters, and where our identity comes from our individual virtues, skills, and actions. Reactions like this to Schultz makes it more difficult to achieve that by making it more difficult to have the conversations in the first place.