Friday, March 20, 2015

Starbucks and the Problem with Empathy

"I will have no man in my boat," said Starbuck, "who is not afraid of a whale." By this, he seemed to mean, not only that the most reliable and useful courage was that which arises from the fair estimation of the encountered peril, but that an utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

I have conversations about racism for a living. And even if my job as a college professor did not professionalize such an activity, I would find a way to have them with as many people as possible. But I would still prefer to have conversations about racism in a classroom, as part of a college course. Why? Because I have fifteen weeks of classes to do so. And that is still not enough time to accomplish what is necessary.

Starbucks has a different idea. Its new "Race Together" campaign operates from the assumption that a few minutes of coffee talk, however humble, is part of the solution to racial injustice. "Race Together" encourages baristas to engage with customers on the topic of "race." Customers are invited to be part of the experiment if the words "Race Together" appear on their beverage containers. Starbucks aggressively promoted the campaign on social media but was unprepared for responses that questioned or outright mocked it. One senior vice president even temporarily suspended his Twitter account because of a barrage of critical tweets. In this blog entry, I will explain how "Race Together" perpetuates a popular myth of social justice education: that empathy is part of the solution to injustice. Empathy is part of the problem.

To be clear, I am not talking about empathy as a problem in and of itself, absent any context. Trying to understand a situation from the perspective of others can be personally edifying. As well, others can benefit from a conscious intent to know their pain. The problem arises when empathy becomes part of a plan--a stage of that plan even--and that plan seeks to undo racism.


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.

Complete strangers of different races talking honestly about race is liberal white fantasy. The fantasy presumes that the stakes in the conversation are equal, as well as the trust between parties. How is a person of color supposed to empathize with a white person as a white person over racism when white people cannot experience racism? Quite simply, people of color have more skin in the game. Their role is to satisfy the curiosity of white people at great psychic risk to themselves. There is no good reason why my students should trust me on the first day of class; they shouldn't. I need weeks to foster the kind of trust that enables authentic dialogue on racism. What might two strangers expect to be able to do in a few minutes? Even when I openly model my experiences with overt racism or my own internalized white supremacy, my goal isn't for students to empathize with me. I don't want them to dwell on my stories. I especially don't want my white students to channel their feelings into a conviction to help people like me. My stories should direct all of my students to identify the reach and role of white supremacy in the stories of their own lives. Empathy gets in the way of that learning.

Empathy can be a problem because of the faith that it places in free speech. You do not have to be a literature professor like me to believe that stories are everything. Stories determine our reality. Lies like white supremacy are nothing more than really popular stories. The only reason why people like Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz includes empathy as part of a plan to fight racism is because he also believes that stories are everything, even if he doesn't come out and say so. Empathy is nothing more than the capacity to be transformed by a story: a racist white person believes X about black people, hears a powerful story, and now believes Y. What else is a stereotype but a popular story writ large? "Race Together" reinforces the myth that the best way to deal with racism is to tell a better story. A belief in the efficacy of empathy is simultaneously a belief in the efficacy of free speech. However, ask people of color how much the freedom of speech empowers them at an everyday level, and you begin to understand the problem with empathy as any part of an institutionalized effort against racism.

A critical race theory concept known as the "empathic fallacy" helps to explain the problem with empathy in this context. According to Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, the "idea that one can use words to undo the meanings that others attach to those very same words is to commit the empathic fallacy--the belief that one can change a narrative by merely offering another, better one--that the reader's or listener's empathy will quickly and reliably take over." A true exchange of free speech is simply not possible under many real-world circumstances. For example, it is often not safe for a person of color to respond to free speech, whether it takes the form of hate speech or of small talk with that nice Asian barista. People of color comprise 40% of Starbucks' workers, and baristas of all races have expressed reservations about "Race Together." Indeed, we must question the honesty of any tête-à-tête between working-class laborers and the customers they must serve. Unlike what was on tap at President Obama's "beer summit" with Professor Henry Louis Gates and the police officer who racially profiled him, Frappuccinos don't necessarily loosen inhibitions.

Most importantly, however, the impossibility of a true exchange of free speech over racism at Starbucks is not a problem of honesty; it is a problem of imagination. Coffee nation cannot have a real conversation about "race" because there is no common consciousness of the meanings of race and racism. A 2011 study found that not only do white Americans believe "reverse racism" to be real but that it is a greater problem than racism against black Americans. "How can one talk back to messages, scripts, and stereotypes that are embedded in the minds of one's fellow citizens," argue Delgado and Stefancic, "and, indeed, the national psyche?" In other words, how do you tell a story to a person whose sense of self is so deeply embedded within another story? And what if that other story is the story of white supremacy? Can you do it in three minutes? With a smile? The Eric Garner video is a three-minute story of racism. The Tamir Rice video is a two minute story with a two-second climax. These are not anecdotes but eyewitness videos. And yet they have no purchase with some. The smugness of "I Can Breathe" can make perfect sense to too many Americans, and the city of Cleveland can blame a twelve-year old boy for his own death. One would hope that these videos--stories of white degeneracy--are more compelling stories than white supremacy. The person who edited Eric Garner's Wikipedia page certainly thought so. But not grand juries.

Howard Schultz is fooling himself if he believes that Starbucks occupies a space in the cultural imagination very different from that of the Mall of America or expensive Sunday brunch. Starbucks is the harbinger of gentrification. Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries of Zillow report that properties near Starbucks appreciate in value at greater rates than the average American home (96% to 65% over the past 17 years). "Race Together" will never interrupt the story of white supremacy and will probably make it stronger. But the story of white supremacy is also a lived narrative, and it can be interrupted. Ask the Black Lives Matter activists who punked the Black Friday free-for-all at the Mall of America last year. Or those who continue to disrupt trendy brunches across the country with "Black Brunch." Racism in America is not a problem of misunderstanding, Howard Schultz, not really. It is a problem of wealth and geography. A recent report from Demos found that eliminating disparities in homeownership rates would shrink the wealth gap between white and black Americans substantially more than equalizing college graduation rates and income.

In this nation's history, there is relationship between casual dining and racial justice. Take the Greensboro Four--Ezell Blair, Jr., Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, and David Richmond--the North Carolina A&T freshmen whose carefully planned, nonviolent protest of segregation could not have happened without coffee. On February 1, 1960, they sat down at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, NC and stayed until closing time, expecting to be refused service. They were joined by more students each following day and eventually inspired a boycott that desegregated more than just lunch counters. With their principled actions, these activists and others like them interrupted the lived narrative of white supremacy, and the social change brought about by these actions is the reason why Howard Schultz can even entertain the ludicrous idea of transformative interracial conversations in his cafes. Engaging with the reality of racism is not meaningful if it happens only when we feel like it. Pity that Starbucks has avoided predominantly-black communities such as Selma, AL, Ferguson, MO, Highland Park, MI, or Gary, IN. Starbucks is not part of the noble history of antiracist activism in America. Despite its literary namesake, a character from an iconic American novel that cautions against the hubris of the powerful, Starbucks has no idea how stories work.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What Monopoly Can Teach Us about Ferguson

The unchecked glee with which Darren Wilson supporters celebrated the recent DOJ report on the killing of Mike Brown was both predictable and myopic. Predictable in the sense that their faith in the justice system was vindicated by the likelihood that "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" is more metaphor than literal truth. And myopic in the sense that such faith willfully looks past the other DOJ report, a bombshell that found a systematic pattern of predation by the Ferguson PD against the black citizens it had sworn to protect. In light of the latter report, which amounted to nothing less than a strategic plan to arrest and shake down the black residents of Ferguson, I thought of another motto that Ferguson protesters might use: "Palms Up, Don't Grift." The motto's mascot could be the Monopoly man, empty-handed with his pockets turned inside-out. As the DOJ discovered, the Ferguson PD paired corporal violence with economic violence, targeting black people because they could be counted on as human annuities, indefinitely paying out fines on top of fines into city coffers.

The iconic Monopoly man reminded me how much his board game can teach us about institutional racism in general. A decade ago, the academic journal Multicultural Education published "When the Rules Are Fair, But the Game Isn't" by Muktha Yost, Edward Whitfield, and Mark Yost. These authors played Monopoly with their students, with a simple but crucial modification: each person was placed in a group, and each group started the game at a different time. What this meant was that those in Group 1 had readier access to the acquisition of property, railroads, and utilities. After a half-hour, Group 2 would be allowed to begin, with Group 3 jumping in a full hour after the game had started. The rules of the game did not change; each player was equal under the "laws" of the game. Despite this fact, the authors concluded that Group 1 "always produces the winner." This was not the only common outcome. Players in groups starting later lost the desire to play, many preferring to stay in jail to avoid having to pay rent to other players. I used the activity with my own students and arrived at similar results.

The most important lesson from this activity is how the legacy of centuries of de jure, institutionalized white supremacy must be understood through the concept of group-based identity. That is, the lie of Monopoly is the same lie of liberalism: that our rights should inhere only in our identity as individuals. Players must buy, sell, and trade properties as abstract individuals. However, as the activity illustrates, the group one is assigned to is the best predictor of success or failure. Looking only at the situation of black Americans, we see how being shut out from property acquisition for most of the "game," as it were, limits future prospects and social mobility. Most black Americans escaped the identity of chattel only to be restricted from owning property themselves. Like those redlined out of homeownership by FHA guidelines, players in groups starting later are relegated to paying rent rather than owning property and building equity in the form of houses and hotels. In this way, the activity makes the important distinction between income and wealth; although all players begin with the same seed money and earn the same salary, Group 1 accumulated more assets and hence more wealth.

Black Americans able to buy their own homes still fare poorly compared to white peers. White flight (abetted by blockbusting and the anti-busing Milliken v. Bradley decision) depressed home values in black neighborhoods, even after the 1968 Fair Housing Act prohibited housing discrimination. In the documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion, legal scholar john a. powell notes that the value of the five-bedroom house he grew up in in Detroit is $20,000; if it were in the suburbs, it would be worth $320,000. Following the subprime mortgage crisis, the wealth gap worsened. This is because most of the wealth of black families was found in their homes, unlike white families with more diversified assets. To make matters worse, Wells Fargo bank specifically targeted black people for subprime mortgages which its employees called "ghetto loans" for "mud people." The Monopoly activity can jumpstart a discussion of how much group-based identity matters in the relationship between wealth and racism.

As useful as the Monopoly activity is, its lesson about group-based discrimination accounts for only part of the story of institutional racism in America. If we wanted a more accurate representation of what it means to play this game as a black American, particularly in Ferguson and communities like it, we would have to make additional adjustments. For example, some game cards, such as "You Inherit $100," would have to be changed for players in Group 3. Given the fact that people of color are less likely to inherit money than are white people, money regularly flowing "upstream" from children to parents, these players should have to give up $100 instead.

So here goes. Let's assume that upper- and middle-class white Americans comprise Group 1, working-class white Americans comprise Group 2, and black Americans comprise Group 3. (With this example, I don't intend to diminish the oppression of other racial groups and women in general when it comes to property acquisition, least of all American Indians.) I show gender intersecting with race in some of the situations below, although I admit that much more could be done to demonstrate negative impacts on women.

INCARCERATION: To begin, we need to redefine the role played by jail. Because 1 in 3 black men in America can expect to go to prison in their lifetime, all men in Group 3 must begin the game by rolling two dice. If the player rolls a 4, 5, or 6 (a 33% probability), then the player must immediately go to jail to start the game. White men can also be asked to do the same; 1 in 17 white men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime (almost a 6% probability, the same as rolling a 3 with two dice). House rules can determine how long the player stays in jail, but black players must receive a sentence that is 10% longer than white players.

MUNICIPAL GRIFTING: Because black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men, all railroad and utility spaces count as "Go Directly to Jail" spaces for men in Group 3 (additional "Go Directly to Jail" cards would need to be added to Chance and Community Chest). Whether you are a man or woman, when your stay in jail ends, you must pay $100 in fines for the trumped-up charges added by the arresting officer. If you cannot pay the fine, you must pay $150 before you reach "Go" or you will be arrested again and sent to jail.


POLICE BRUTALITY: Every time a man in Group 3 is sent to jail, he may be killed by police during or after arrest. While it is unclear how often an arrest leads to a killing, a recent study reported that 928 people are killed by police every year. And we know that black men are more likely to be targets of threats and/or force by police. For our purposes, if the player rolls a 2 with two dice ("snake eyes") twice in a row, we can assume that he has been shot and killed by police and is out of the game.

CLASS & RACE PRIVILEGE: If you are in Group 2 or 3 and are sent to jail, roll two dice. If you roll a 5 or 6 (if you are a woman, a 4, 5, or 6) you have lost your job as a result of your conviction and/or time lost from work. Unemployed, you collect nothing the next time you pass "Go." For subsequent circuits, your salary is cut by $50. Repeat with each arrest. Conversely, if you are in Group 1, every "negative" card in Community Chest counts as a "Get Out of Jail Free" card because you know a person who can fix your tickets. Group 3 players get a salary of $180 instead of $200 even though they have degrees from more prestigious universities than players in Groups 1 and 2.

DE FACTO SEGREGATION: If you are in Group 3 and have an opportunity to purchase or trade for a property from a set whose other two properties are owned by members of Group 1 or 2, roll the dice. A negative result means that you will not be able to purchase the property after all. Nikole Hannah-Jones reported that a federal inquiry into the lending practices of M&H Bank found that unlike black and Latino customers, white customers were steered toward white neighborhoods. Moreover, white applicants were approved for loans denied to better-qualified black and Latino applicants.

BLOCK BUSTING: Alternately, if you are in Group 1 or 2, and a Group 3 member manages to buy into your neighborhood, the mortgage value of the properties in that set will be cut in half after two turns. You may try to sell those properties to a Group 3 member, but not at a price lower than what you paid; you may sell to Group 1 or 2 members at any price. Any improvements (houses, hotels) on properties owned by Group 3 players will cost 25% more because of higher insurance rates for black neighborhoods. If mortgaged, these improvements will bring 25% less than the standard value.

WHITE FLIGHT: If players in Groups 1 or 2 sell properties in an integrated neighborhood, they may purchase any unowned property in a better neighborhood without having to land on it. Ferguson itself was once a majority white community and is now majority black. For another community hit by white flight, "[i]t wasn't African Americans moving in that caused housing values to go down . . . "it was whites leaving." Did Ferguson offset its eroded tax base with grifting? There may be a direct correlation between the rate of white flight from Ferguson and the rate of city revenue from policing.


In Privilege, Power, and Difference, Allan G. Johnson uses Monopoly to explain why people not acting racist won't end racism. The reason is the same reason why everybody can't win at Monopoly: the game isn't designed that way. Monopoly is a system designed to produce predictable outcomes.
So, if I notice that someone plays Monopoly in a ruthless way, it’s a mistake to explain that simply in terms of their personality. I also have to ask how a system like Monopoly rewards ruthless behavior more than other games we might play. I have to ask how it creates conditions that make such behavior appear to be the path of least resistance, normal and unremarkable. . . . And even if I don’t try hard to win, the mere fact that I play the game supports its existence and makes it possible, especially if I remain silent about the consequences it produces. Just my going along makes the game appear normal and acceptable, which reinforces the paths of least resistance for everyone else.
So pocketing a competitor's last dollar of Monopoly money with a heavy heart doesn't change the outcome that you have just bankrupted someone. The DOJ report told us that the Ferguson PD and courts systematically targeted black residents to make money. And Ferguson may not even be the worst example of this kind of revenue system. So while we might be encouraged that Ferguson police officers and officials are losing their jobs as a result of the report, we shouldn't expect that any of this passes for satisfactory justice. Just as Monopoly, as a system, is designed to bankrupt all but one player, the system of law enforcement is designed to find criminals--or to create them if necessary.

As this article reports, many NYPD officers lamented the end of their recent, unofficial work slowdown because the system pushed them to enforce "broken windows" policing against their better judgment. The NYPD's refusal to "play the game" of grifting unwittingly revealed the flaws of the system that many already suspected: violent crime did not increase without "broken windows" policing. Does this mean that the system of law enforcement might do something other than manufacture criminals? We just might be onto something. But, then again, Mike Brown may not have had his hands in the air when he was shot and killed by Darren Wilson. So never mind, the system is fine. Forget everything I just said. Move along, nothing to see here.