#RaceTogether RIP

One week after uniting America in laughter, Starbucks shut down its #RaceTogether effort.

The coffee giant’s white CEO thought it would be a good idea for its busy baristas to slow up the lines to “start a conversation” about race relations in America.

“Start a conversation”?

How tone deaf can you be? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead, protesters were sprayed with fire hoses, and churches were firebombed – but thank goodness Starbucks is here to finally “start the conversation,” right? As silly as the concept is, it’s also amazingly arrogant.

And the poor Starbucks employees were right in the crosshairs on this. Imagine being a 17-year-old, suburban, white barista trying to “start a conversation” with a 60-year-old black man, who might have had to deal with segregation, busing, intolerance, and prejudice. The normally inane Gawker had a pretty accurate postmortem upon finding the internal memo preparing Starbucks staff for the campaign:

Not only, if you are a Starbucks employee, must you make coffee all day with the efficiency of a machine while dealing with entitled dickhead customers. You must also—at least this week—watch a video of your CEO talking about race, print out a USA Today ad, hand out stickers, then remove the original ad and replace it with a special insert. All so that you can “help foster empathy and common understanding in the country” as “the country faces ongoing racial tension.”

If you’re lucky, you make $9 an hour. Sounds great.

The worst part about Starbucks’s campaign was the complete ignorance of what the customer wanted. As JC Penney has found, trying to change your customers’ preferences is usually a bad idea. No one like getting told what to thing – especially by someone you’re paying to feed you caffeine.

Starbucks may have had their heart in the right place, but someone really should have stood up to CEO Howard Schultz and told him this was ticketed for disaster.

Ice Cream Trucks Bring Racism to America

A story on NPR this week tells us that a song commonly used as the siren call for ice cream trucks combing through suburbia  was released in 1916 under the title, “N***** Love a Watermelon, Ha Ha Ha.”

Shock! Horror! And interesting to note, as the author of the piece does, that minstrel music was the original soundtrack for ice cream parlors. The tunes made the leap to ice cream trucks out of tradition.

Since it’s been a while since I traded CD’s with Donald Sterling, I didn’t recognize the song.  How did they find this vile ditty and put it in an ice cream truck?

For his creation, [Songwriter Harry] Browne simply used the well-known melody of the early 19th-century song “Turkey in the Straw,” which dates back to the even older and traditional British song “The (Old) Rose Tree.” The tune was brought to America’s colonies by Scots-Irish immigrants who settled along the Appalachian Trail and added lyrics that mirrored their new lifestyle.

Well, now wait a second.

Turkey in the Straw” is a pretty common tune. It’s programmed into many of the electronic toys my daughters have played with in infancy and toddlerhood – maybe not as ubiquitous as the ABC’s, but in the mix with “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Good Humor and Fisher Price probably use the song for the same reason: since it’s in the public domain, there are no copyright fees.

But author Theodore Johnson brings up the interesting point that the tune gained popularity through minstrel songs. Does the song’s significance really go beyond interesting history?

There are probably thousands of songs lost to the ages, so why does “Turkey in the Straw” still get played today? Is it lingering racism? Or is it just a bouncy, free tune whose origins are largely forgotten?

I’ll go with the latter. Otherwise, we have some problems with Steamboat Willie.


Rand Stands His Ground

This week, Texas’s baby debate, the Zimmerman trial winding down, and Obamacare topped the news.  So you could forgive Sen. Rand Paul if he ignored the news that broke about one of his advisors was a southern sympathizer.

Instead, Paul replied – and did so defiantly:

Paul (R-Ky.) stressed that he opposed such views, many of which have been recanted by the Senate aide, Jack Hunter, who co-wrote Paul’s first book in 2010 and who is now his social media adviser in Washington.

“I’m not a fan of secession,” Paul said. “I think the things he said about John Wilkes Booth are absolutely stupid. I think Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents. Do I think Lincoln was wrong is taking away the freedom of the press and the right of habeas corpus? Yeah.

…“Are we at a point where nobody can have had a youth or said anything untoward?” the senator asked rhetorically.

Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are both running for office with scandals much closer in the rear view mirror, so it’s an apt question.  But more than that, it’s a departure from the usual playbook on politicians handling negative information.  Usually, Republicans will apologize, fire the offending staffer, and then pose for awkward pictures with black people.

Paul seems to understand that plan sends the public bullcrap meter off the charts.  He answered honestly, instead.

And maybe it’s time for politicians to start doing things like that.  Politically inconvenient sincerity builds good will (or what passes for good will when dealing with a politician).  After all, if we was going to lie about something, surely he’d lie about this, right?  It also demonstrates a healthy respect for the electorate’s intelligence.

Will it help him stand out during the GOP kumite in Spring 2016?  Maybe not, since another likely candidate will have the same type of tough-talking honesty as his signature, too.  At least it will set a good example.

The NFL’s failing affirmative action policy

New York Giants’ defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is interviewing for the head coaching position of the Tennessee Titans.  This is the fourth team Fewell has interviewed with this offseason, having missed the cut with the Browns, Panthers, and Broncos as well.  His consideration makes sense: Fewell was an interim coach for the Buffalo Bills for seven games, and his current job is a feeder position for head coaches (at least three current NFL head coaches are former Giants defensive coordinators).

But two words pop up in almost every single story about Fewell’s interviews: “Rooney Rule.”  The rule tells NFL teams that they are required to interview minority candidates for coaching vacancies, even if they have no intention of hiring them.  Fewell is black, so he allows teams to check that box.

The rule is a double edged sword at best.  Candidates who undergo the mandatory, just-for-show interviews over a number of years  may start to generate legitimate buzz as a head coaching candidate as they get to put their accomplishments on display.  But in any industry, job seekers who interview for any and every possible opening start to earn a reputation.  Similarly, Fewell’s 0-for-3 so far in the 2011 offseason – and the possibility of going 0-for-4, since the Titans already have a favored candidate – could earn him the label of an NFL coaching bridesmaid – someone good enough to interview, but not good enough to hire.  Since several of the teams were just using him to keep up appearances, most of those interviews were unnecessary.

Fewell will most likely be a head coach in the NFL.  If he does a good job with the Giants defense again next year, he’ll certainly deserve his shot.  What he won’t ever deserve is being treated like a token so that the NFL can pay lip service to diversity.


Majority status, with minority problems

Politico notes today that the 2008 victory of President Obama is not opening up the floodgates for other black candidates, as evidenced by Artur Davis’s loss in the Alabama gubernatorial primary this week.  Pennsylvania State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, who finished third in seeking the Democratic nomination for Governor, says that in addition to concerns from Democrat activists over whether black candidates can win general elections, ideology plays a big part:

“I think the Obama era has actually transcended race. Not to say people don’t have biases — of course they exist, they exist in every state,” [Williams] said. “The question I got was, ‘Are you an Obama Democrat’ in regard to spending, not in regard to race.”

This may be why, despite these troubles on the Democratic side, Republicans are enjoying historic highs (for them) in  minority and women candidates.  It also suggests the opening of another interesting door.

The rise of the conservative movement was based in part on the growth of thought leadership organizations, chiefly in the 1960s and 1970s.  Institutions like National Review and the Heritage Foundation built the pillars of conservative thought upon which electoral and policy successes were built.  They were crystallizing – and making palatable – the ideas that candidates and lawmakers would later use.

Today’s challenge for the conservative movement goes beyond establishing a foothold for these ideas in the general electorate.  Today’s challenge is to expand the audiences that are receptive to those messages. It’s not enough for the Republican Party to recruit leaders from minority communities, think tanks and thought leaders must do so as well.

(Word has it that Marvel Comics has already started.)

Flubs of Steele

Michael Steele shouldn’t have blamed his recent fundraising flaps on racism.  Luckily, he didn’t, despite the headlines crawling around today

Watch the clip: Race was actually brought into the discussion as part of a viewer question, which Steele answered honestly – and, to be fair, correctly.

Maybe Steele should have been a little clearer on the fact that he was speaking broadly about the fact that, although we have come pretty far in this country, black people still get the crap end of the stick more than they should.  He did bring it up as a bipartisan issue.

But his out-of-context quote has been framed to sound like an excuse and repeated over and over.  Any person who wrote a headline – or worse, a story – that implied that Steele was hiding behind race for the recent RNC scandal is either a political hack or a bad journalist.  (And ABC’s own site, which claimed Steele “played the race card today,” is no better.)

Again, watch the clip.

Last week the New York Times went over the top, implying that anyone who opposes government-run health care might as well be hanging with Ed Norton and Edward Furlong and giving out curb smileys to anyone who rooted for the Lakers over the Celtics in the 1980s.  In comparison, Steele’s mild observation is a much more reasoned and well-thought-out social commentary on race relations.

Thankfully, the White House’s Robert Gibbs set everything straight during the daily press briefing, calling the concept that black people and white people are treated different “fairly silly.”

Because there could be no better expert on race relations than this guy: