Part 1—Or about anything else: Mercifully, Howard Schultz has called a halt to his conversation about race.
It isn’t that his call to converse was changing things at our own Starbucks. To state the obvious, baristas don’t have time for conversations about race, or about anything else, when they’re serving complex drinks to long lines of glowering people.
To us, Schultz seemed more like Howard Beale in his strange videotaped request. To us, he seemed almost totally daft—and we don’t mean that in a good way!
Does Howard Schultz have any idea what a “conversation” is? How about the tons of pundits who used his peculiar declaration as a way to kill a column last week, or a TV segment or three?
Do they know what “conversation” is? Increasingly, we don’t feel sure.
(How about Professor Harris-Perry? Yesterday, she burned a half hour showing us that the “Nerdland” gang knows more about race than Schultz does. To us, this utter waste of time was every bit as daft as the latte magnate’s original request.)
Do major journalists know what a “conversation” is? Increasingly, we wonder. Consider Rachel Swarns’ column in today’s New York Times.
Swarns decided to take the upbeat approach to our conversation about having a conversation. She found a pair of co-workers who say they’ve had a productive conversation about race in the past year.
Just as it would be in a movie, their names are Chittle and Jones.
As Swarns starts her column, Jones is trying to start a conversation in the company lunchroom last summer. More specifically, he wanted to start a conversation about the shooting of Michel Brown:
SWARNS (3/23/15): Carl Jones brought it up over lunch in the company break room: the news of the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. “Did you read about it?” Mr. Jones, a software engineer who is black, remembers asking his colleagues. “How could this happen?”There’s no doubt about it. Many times, people will feel uncomfortable talking about racial topics, certainly so in a workplace setting.
He told his white and Asian-American co-workers about his feelings of outrage as they ate Korean takeout at the lunch table at their technology company in Manhattan. He described the waves of anger and anxiety sweeping over him.
Mr. Jones, the only black employee in his department, had always talked with his work friends about sports, movies and current events. But this conversation last summer was different. One white colleague challenged him, asking: “How do you know the shooting wasn’t justified?” Others averted their eyes and finished the meal in silence.
He knew then that he had crossed an invisible line. The discussion of race that day changed the social dynamics at the table, chilling his co-workers’ camaraderie.
“Everyone did their best to avoid the conversation,” Mr. Jones, 33, recalled last week as he described the day that he discussed the shooting in Ferguson, Mo. Race is often the elephant in the room, he said, and “a lot of times people feel uncomfortable talking about it.”
It’s easy to talk about sports at work. Talking about the Ferguson shooting would almost surely be harder.
Carl Jones seems like a very good person. It isn’t surprising that he was upset about the shooting of Michael Brown. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t have wanted to see the topic discussed.
That said, people have always been told—you shouldn’t discuss religion or politics at Thanksgiving dinner. There are obvious reasons for avoiding such subjects in certain types of situations. Any topic involving race could be added to that mix.
Carl Jones seems like a very good person. After discussing the Starbucks request, Swarns returns to his efforts.
According to Swarns, Jones just kept raising racial concerns at work. In the course of the past seven months, he made at least one friend:
SWARNS: [A]s protests swelled over the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the police on Staten Island and began to dominate the news, Mr. Jones noticed a change. His colleagues started sharing news stories with him, he said, and their own thoughts and questions about racial issues.As it turns out, Chittle and Jones are now friends. As she closes her column, Swarns suggests that Jones has had productive conversations with other co-workers as well.
He discovered that one of his white colleagues had participated in a protest over the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer in Mr. Garner’s death. The two men were at the same demonstration in Washington Square Park but had not bumped into each other.
They looked at each other in astonishment.
“I think we both were a bit scared at first to make sure we were on the same sheet of paper,” said the colleague, Shawn G. Chittle, 42, who took care in his early conversations with Mr. Jones not to “ruffle any feathers.”
“But I saw some emotion in Carl’s face,” said Mr. Chittle, a product manager at Magnetic who has become close to Mr. Jones. “I wanted him to know he had a confidant.”
What has happened in that workplace? We have no idea. We did notice a couple of things about this rather formulaic column:
First, Jones and Chittle seem to share a general view about these issues. As a general matter, it’s easy to talk about race (or politics or religion) with people who share your views. The problem starts with people who may be inclined to see things differently.
Swarns seems to suggest that Jones and his co-workers have had no problems discussing race as time has moved along. That may well be the case.
Still, we couldn’t help noting a second point, a dog which didn’t bark in this column. What have Jones and his colleagues ended up thinking about the shooting of Brown?
According to Swarns, these discussions started last summer when Michael Brown was killed. Jones wondered how the shooting could have happened. One of his co-workers said the shooting might have been “justified” in some way.
Three weeks ago, the Justice Department basically said that the shooting was justified. They seemed to say, in an official report, that all the shots that were fired that day were fired in self-defense.
Is that a sound judgment? We aren’t really sure. We would prefer that police officers fire their guns as rarely as possible. In certain circumstances, when people refuse to submit to arrest, we might even prefer that officers run away.
That said, the Justice Department seemed to say that Wilson had no way of knowing that Brown didn’t have a gun when he advanced on Wilson, refusing to be arrested. What has Jones come think about that? How about the rest of the lunchroom?
What has Jones come to think about this, his initial topic? In a typical bit of journalism, Rachel Swarns didn’t ask and Jones didn’t say!
Swarns was writing a feel-good piece. In such columns, such compliactions may get omitted, even though they raise the most basic questions:
Can people come to admit that they may have been wrong in their initial reactions? Can people who started with different instincts reach some place of agreement, respect or accommodation, even concerning emotional issues?
Swarns failed to discuss the resolution of the original question. This leads to the question we’ll ponder this week:
Do our modern journalists even know what a “conversation” is? Beyond that, how about us the people? Do we have any idea?
We ask these questions for a reason. Our modern political conversations often take a peculiar form:
Some individual act occurs. It may involve the shooting of an unarmed young man. It may involve the arrest of a UVa student on St. Patrick’s Day.
It may involve an allegation—the allegation of a hideous sexual assault at that same university. It may involve a set of reactions to a debate on an Ivy League campus.
Our “conversations” often start at such points. From there, a familiar pattern obtains:
Within our various tribal groups, we get busy making up facts about the event in question. Multimillionaire TV stars will often help us along.
On the basis of our invented facts, we start explaining what the event in question means. When it turns out that our basic facts were false, we often just keep stating them anyway—though by that time, we may be busy inventing facts about the next event.
Conversations of this type aren’t real conversations at all. Increasingly, though, that’s the way our discourse tends to work.
Do our major journalists even know that this is a problem? And what about us the people? Do we the people have any idea how real “conversation” works?
Tomorrow: An arrest at UVa