(Image via Shutterstock)

(Image via Shutterstock)

Starbucks is in the crosshairs. How dare it ask its employees, customers, and America to discuss the role of race and racism in American society? The company recently began a project it calls “Race Together,” in partnership with USA Today, aiming to begin a lengthy process of discussion and reflection on the inequities and distortions in American society, and even in the minds of all of us. What right does it have to do that? Hypocrisy! cry the critics, including here on LinkedIn.

The pushback has been brutal, especially on Twitter, where extended and respectful discussion is almost impossible. (How can you have nuanced arguments when each statement is limited to a mere 140 characters and comments only erratically get juxtaposed?) Almost all the articles about the controversy (for instance here in The New York Times and here in Rolling Stone) make reference to how company spokesman Corey DuBrowa turned off his Twitter account in the face of the unceasing opprobrium. This typical tweet was featured in Tai Tran’s LinkedIn story as an example of the “failure” of the initiative: “If you wanna #RaceTogether, let’s talk about how many POC [people of color] you employ in corporate, Starbucks? Who does your PR? Your legal work?”

Starbucks is being wrongly vilified. Why is it so hard for all these cavilers to accept the possibility that the company realizes its employment numbers are unequal and inappropriate, by any impartial moral standard? Apparently they find it impossible to believe the company could actually want to rectify this inequity. Of course Starbucks is run by white people and has a lot of black and other non-white people working at the entry level. This is a giant American corporation. Look around at every other service company. It’s very difficult to find any for which this is not true. It is a reflection of American society and its own deep-seated inequities.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and USA Today editor Larry Kramer want to precipitate a dialogue about all of that. The pushback against Starbucks, however unpleasant, rude, and angry it may be, is apparently how such a dialogue begins. So be it. This is not an easy topic.

Maybe so-called activists believe that by standing outside and shouting they will effect change in companies. There’s nothing wrong with standing outside and shouting. But for real change to get started it helps to have leadership that is convinced something is wrong and is committed to the uncomfortable process of shifting power and prerogatives. I don’t know for sure that Howard Schultz is ready for that. But if he didn’t realize that a likely consequence of such a campaign would be to put the spotlight on racial disparities inside Starbucks itself then he’s a lot more naive than I thought. (I am slightly acquainted with Schultz, who co-chairs The Markle Foundation ReWork America Initiative, for America’s economic future in a networked world, of which I am a member. I have not discussed Race Together with him.)

Starbucks has become a kind of “town square” for many, a place where people hang out, plug in, turn on (their wi-fi), nurse lattes, and have conversations. That’s a big part of how Starbucks sees itself. A lot of different kinds of people pass through those stores in a day. It’s one of the reasons why this company inaugurated this edgy discussion, rather than the many others whose racial patterns are as bad or worse.

Whether we like it or not, today a preponderance of economic and, yes, political power is held by companies. Very frequently they use that political power in ways that damage our country and our common fabric, like when they secretly fund mean-spirited political action campaigns, work to undermine environmental regulation, or fight increases in the minimum wage. But if a company decides instead to step up and take a stance on a controversial matter of national import, and subject itself to the inevitable scrutiny and criticism, that’s laudable.

I suspect much of the anti-Starbucks animus is really an animus against big companies in general. There is a widely-prevailing view that they serve only their own interests and perpetuate, rather than address, systemic inequality and racism, among other sins. Way too often all that is true. But anti-corporatism is its own kind of mechanical bias. In reality, companies are as diverse as the human beings that lead them and work in them. That isn’t diverse enough. But increasingly, effective corporate leaders are recognizing that as a nation and as a planet we face intractable problems that all of us—in and out of business—must face and address. Those corporate leaders who do more than just seek to increase profit are stepping into social issues because they recognize that how their companies are perceived will determine whether they will have the right to operate in future. Perceptions matter, and doing the right thing improves perceptions. If Starbucks is in fact worse than other companies, I’d like to hear which are the better ones. Let’s give them a spotlight.

Yes, Starbucks should have a more diverse management team. The racial (and gender) diversity of our nation ought to be reflected throughout its ranks. That’s also true of just about every major American company. Young people of color across the country ought to have more options for education, training, and employment. It is a scandal that so few services are available in many minority neighborhoods. (For instance, before a Whole Foods Market recently opened in downtown Detroit, there was not a single full-scale grocery in the entire—mostly black—city.) All those angry people should direct some of their wrath at the innumerable other CEOs who each year take tens of millions of dollars in pay back to their gated communities and mostly-white neighborhoods, but who don’t speak up about inequality and racism. Starbucks, meanwhile, as part of its project pledges to open more stores in underserved urban areas.

The necessary measures to address systemic racism and pernicious systems of inequality will go way beyond having more dialogue. We have to look at really hard things like the way we fund public schools with property taxes, which enables the already privileged in wealthy areas to pass along that privilege to their children. Or how colleges and universities give preference to the children of alumni. Or how interviewers for jobs, told that an applicant is white or black, will often rate the exact same application radically differently. (That last fact is reported in a broadsheet that Starbucks distributed at its stores as part of the Race Together campaign, along with other damning statistics and personal testimonies about unequal treatment people have experienced because of their race.)

The reason I’m discussing all this here and now is because one company accepted the risks and took on the responsibility to prod us into further dialogue. It’s going to take a lot more than Starbucks’ project to enable us to make real progress in our racially-divided nation. But a small step is a lot better than no steps at all.