“As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background as a young boy, in the projects,” said Howard Schultz, would-be presidential candidate, during a televised town hall on February 11, “I didn’t see color … and I honestly don’t see color now.”
Schultz was answering an audience question about the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks location in April. That day, a store manager phoned the police after the men declined to purchase anything while waiting for an acquaintance to meet them. As then-CEO, Schultz oversaw the closure of stores nationwide for a daylong anti-bias training. The training was, predictably, almost entirely about color — that most people not only see it, but that it shapes their prejudices and broader inequalities in profound ways. Paired with his claim to a “diverse” upbringing, it is clear that both cannot be true — that Schultz simultaneously does not see color and recognizes that the color of the arrestees had something to do with their mistreatment.
What he was more likely trying to convey — as most people are when they claim color-blindess — is that he privileges character over skin color. And he is able to do this because of a personal choice he has made: Instead of indulging the racist assumptions that dictate the rest of our interactions with one another, Schultz has chosen to ignore racial difference altogether. The logic behind this is that racism is caused by people who notice race. The best way to eradicate it, therefore, is to ignore it. But racism is not simply the accumulated weight of individual prejudice. Racism encompasses a wide array of personal biases, economic incentives, and social-organizing systems — the latter of which includes who is deemed threatening enough to warrant police intervention at a Starbucks, for example, or which kinds are people are allowed to live where. It is so intrinsic to American life that perpetuating it can be a passive act. Racism is why Schultz can say he grew up in the projects in Brooklyn and have the public understand that as shorthand for poverty and blackness — when in reality, the Bay View Houses in the 1950s and 1960s were “middle income” and over 90 percent white, according to HuffPost.
But one of the more baffling aspects of Schultz’s decision to use this simplistic analogy is that his past attention to racism’s machinations has been one of the more notable things about him. Few billionaire CEOs would force their employees to have awkward conversations about race with their customers in the wake of a police shooting, for instance, as was the case with his 2015 “Race Together” initiative, ill-advised though it was. Few would implement a hiring push to bring more “disconnected and disenfranchised” black and Latino youth to work in their stores. And fewer still would upend corporate convention by launching pilot programs aimed at sharing profits from Starbucks stores in historically black and Latino areas, like Harlem and South Central Los Angeles, with their surrounding communities.
Schultz did all of these things, and explained his self-imposed responsibility to do so in ways that showed an awareness of the racial injustices they were meant to confront. “I’m not black, I haven’t lived a life in which I was racially profiled, and I wasn’t discriminated against because of the color of my skin,” Schultz told Fast Company in 2015. Yet he still chose on Monday to align himself with an ideology whose core tenet is the celebration of its own ignorance. To not “see color” is to not see America — who controls its government, who owns its companies, who amasses the bulk of its wealth, and whose presence is deemed a threat to its status quo. (In a subsequent interview with Washington Post, Schultz attempted to backtrack: “Of course I see color as an adult. Of course I understand the issues of racial justice.”) But historically, the currency of this ideology has come from its ability to obscure racism itself — a valuable quality for anyone seeking to assure others, and themselves, that they are not racist.
And Schultz would not grapple with color-consciousness as a CEO only to profess color-blindness during a prospective White House bid if he did not think it would benefit him. Why he felt he needed to do so here is confusing. The reception to his anti-racism initiatives while at Starbucks has been mixed, but several of the black colleagues, employees, civil-rights advocates, and HBCU students and administrators who have discussed the topic with him in public and private attest to his sincerity. One could describe him as hapless, but few would mistake him for someone who is willfully unattuned to racism and its consequences. More likely, claiming not to see color was a reflexive attempt to profess his own righteousness, rather than an honest assessment of American society, or a calculated effort to hide an insidious agenda. Schultz wanted to convey that racial difference means nothing in his personal life and relationships, while maintaining that he is committed to ending racial equality in society at large.
But this distinction is more or less meaningless in the eyes of history. Declarations of color-blindness emerged in earnest with good-enough intentions during the 1960s, as an expression of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s maxim that people should be judged not by “the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This phrase, spoken during King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, arrived in the context of a culture where white supremacy was enforced through outward vitriol, legally mandated segregation, and racist beatings and murders for which no one was held accountable. The ideal to which Americans should aspire seemed clear: a society where a person’s skin color had no bearing on how they were treated.
But discrimination based on race was not actually the problem — only its crudest expression. The problem was racism, a system of domination and aversion maintained by constantly shifting mechanisms and standards. And it became apparent that this was not a system white people were willing to give up — even as some of its most flagrant expressions became taboo in polite company. The result was a society of “racism without racists,” as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva observed in his book of the same name. “Color-blind racism became the dominant racial ideology as the mechanisms and practices for keeping blacks and other racial minorities ‘at the bottom of the well’ changed,” he wrote.
Jim Crow laws and their attendant presumption of black inferiority were exchanged for less overt means of achieving the same ends — housing segregation won by denying black borrowers home loans, or claiming available units were already occupied; restricting black mobility by advertising job openings only to majority-white networks, or declining to hire black applicants. The resulting inequalities were, and continue to be, rationalized not by claiming that black people’s inferiority earns them substandard treatment, but by attributing them to matters of preference and cultural inclination. This logic accelerated into the late 20th century alongside a stunning rhetorical about-face: Pro–civil rights measures like busing and affirmative action had suddenly gone too far, and now constituted forms of “reverse discrimination” whereby black Americans were gifted unfair advantages.
Less than two decades after the heyday of the civil-rights movement, racial equality stood no chance. The 1980s saw President Reagan enshrine this rhetoric in federal policy by having his Justice Department back court cases that challenged civil-rights measures, and directing it not to defend such measures against outside legal challenges. The following decades saw “color-blind” rhetoric continue to be employed at the highest levels of the American government and judiciary to explain why endeavors like school integration and laws like the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts, dubiously, in a 2007 opinion opposing integration efforts in Seattle.
More recently, pundits and pols profess color-blindness without even pretending not to hold bigoted views. Tomi Lahren, who compared Black Lives Matter to the Ku Klux Klan, does not “see color.” President Trump, according to his son Eric, sees only one color: “Green. That’s all he cares about, he cares about the economy. He does not see race. He’s the least racist person I’ve ever met in my entire life,” the younger Trump told Fox News in January 2018. (The president is in good company: American racism might not exist were it not for the colonists’ and plantation barons’ obsession with money.)
This tendency echoes a rich tradition of bigots denying their bigotry. Former Alabama governor George Wallace famously drew a hard line between “racists” and “segregationists,” claiming that a racist is driven by spite, whereas a segregationist, like himself, is driven by a commitment to the mutual best interests of the races; former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke defended then-candidate Trump against charges of racism during a 2016 interview with NPR’s Morning Edition. “[In] this country, if you simply defend the heritage of European-American people, then you’re automatically a racist. There’s massive racist — racial discrimination against European-Americans. And that’s the reality,” he said.
One trait that distinguishes these men from many of their “color-blind” counterparts — aside from being open white supremacists, of course — is that Duke and Wallace are acutely aware of racial difference. They see color, but that’s okay: They only use their awareness to forge a more just world. Perhaps because of this connection, it is this awareness that the people who claim not to see color have demonized, rather than the system of inequality on which that awareness was predicated. Claiming color-blindness has accrued a sort of anti-racist currency as a result. Those who do so insist that the physical markers that trigger racial hatred mean nothing to them, and therefore, they cannot personally be racist. Racism is thus defined as an individual choice, with “racist” a label none would willingly embrace.
This is why we see so much racism in America, but so few “racists.” It is a perception that mistakes the symptom for the disease. Schultz’s intentions may diverge from Duke’s and Wallace’s, but they are united by a shared willingness to prolong the charade that racism is a matter of personal animus, of a rotten heart, from which they are personally exempt. And there are indeed benefits to be had by positioning oneself as above the fray on such matters. President Obama did so to inspiring and winning effect in the 2008 election — though his record-level deportation rates and public shaming of black people for their purported irresponsibility complicated the story. (Conversely, Trump ran a campaign promising to calcify many of these same racial divides, and won the same office eight years later; he, of course, is “not a racist” either.) Employing the language of color-blindness to win political clout has the added, and perhaps unintended, effect of signaling to nonwhite communities that their needs will be ignored in the name of unity. Democratic primary candidates learned this the hard way in 2016 when they provoked the ire of Black Lives Matter advocates for saying, “All lives matter,” in response to their rallying cry. For the activists, this seeming expression of egalitarianism was the ultimate okey-doke — a means of avoiding talking about racism with any specificity, assignment of responsibility, or commitment to fighting it.
But what can be said with some certainty is that claiming not to “see color” is so broad in its meaning — and has been used historically to rationalize such a wide range of behavior, from the denialist to the hateful— that it has become essentially meaningless. What’s more, it does little to describe the actual society in which we live. Racism would still be here even if tomorrow everyone decided not to “see color.” Schultz’s contradictions around the issue are almost as strong a case against his presidency as the notion driving his run: that Americans are so hungry for a centrist president who sees billionaires as oppressed that risking a split Democratic ticket, and handing reelection to Trump, is an acceptable risk. I have my doubts about this formulation, as does a significant share of the general public. Claiming color-blindness will not compensate for Schultz’s deficit of ideas and public support. But it does convey a deficit of honesty, and that’s something Americans cannot afford.