Two for Tuesday

Important lessons about how to respond to racist conduct.

Posted May 30, 2018

This past Tuesday featured two events that are still making headlines. While approximately 8,000 Starbucks stores across the U.S. were closed for anti-bias training, ABC canceled the reboot of Roseanne. Both events were in response to racist conduct. On April 12, two African-American men were arrested at a Philadelphia Starbucks while waiting for a business associate. The store manager assumed they were trespassing and called the police after they used the bathroom before ordering. Earlier on Tuesday, Roseanne Barr tweeted a racist comment about Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to former President Obama. Despite both being responses to racist conduct, these events illustrate different lessons about how to effectively combat racism.

There has been much discussion about the potential pitfalls of anti-bias training since plans for the Starbucks training were announced. Many worry, and for good reason, that trainings like the one Starbucks executed on Tuesday tend to backfire and serve more to protect corporate image than reduce racial bias. It will be difficult to measure whether this particular training has any real impact – positive or negative. But it is not difficult to see that something needs to be done to protect black people in “white spaces.” Discussion of how best to reduce bias is welcome, and widespread recognition of the need to do so may be the most important legacy of the Starbucks fiasco.

One notable element of the Roseanne episode that played out in Tuesday’s headlines is the identity of the ABC exec who announced the network’s decision to pull the plug. Channing Dungey is the first African-American to be president of a major TV network. The significance of having an African-American woman in charge of the network at this particular moment did not go without notice. It drives home the oft-repeated point that diversity matters. In this case, it is not unreasonable to think that Dungey’s identity played a role in the swiftness and sureness of the network’s decision.

It is important not to overstate the case. This is not Roseanne Barr’s first troublesome tweet, and ABC knew whom it was getting into bed with when it rebooted her show. Many saw this coming, and there is a case to be made that the network never should have put itself in this position in the first place. 

But there is reason to think that a network headed by a woman of color is in a better position to recognize and respond to the racist conduct of one of its marquee stars than its competitors, headed by white men. And this illustrates an important point about how best to combat racism that can often be missed in discussions focused on implicit bias: Structural change matters. If we want better accountability for racist conduct, we need institutions headed by people who are best positioned to offer it.

This is not to say that white men can never advocate for anti-racist (or anti-misogynist) causes. But it is to recognize that identity shapes lived experience and experience shapes knowledge and motivation. In virtue of her African-American identity, Channing Dungey’s experience of life in 21st Century America is not the same as her white male peers’. She is privy to knowledge they are not. And this knowledge may help her to see things differently than they would. Even when they do see things the same way (certainly, some of her peers also readily recognized Roseanne’s tweet as racist, “abhorrent” and “repugnant”), Dungey’s and their different experiences will inform how they respond. Where some network execs may have been more willing to overlook racist invective in the name of high ratings, or more patient and measured in their response, Dungey’s response was swift and decisive. She announced the cancellation of a hugely successful show in a matter of hours. This sends a clear message. And there is every reason to suspect that the clarity is bound up with the identity of the messenger.

Racism in America will not disappear overnight; unfortunately, we can be sure that new and depressing headlines are not far off. But we can learn from the events of this past Tuesday. On the one hand, the debate surrounding Starbucks' anti-bias training reminds us that care is needed, even (especially?) when intentions are good. And even if Starbucks' effort does not solve all of the problems it is meant to, it may contribute to an overall better understanding of what we are up against and how best to proceed in the future. At the very least, it signals recognition of the need to do something. On the other hand, ABC's decision to cancel Roseanne illustrates that structural change, in the form of diverse leadership, can make a real difference. Though Dungey’s announcement will not entirely reshape the media landscape, it is a bold start. Hopefully, other institutions, media and otherwise, will take note.