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Boomer Bytes #63: Starbucks, Race, and Other Things

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

Starbucks, Race, and Other Things

By Steve Canipe

Over the past week or so there was an unusual thing that was happening at Starbucks (yes the coffee place) dealing with discussion of race. The project was started by the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, and the President and Publisher of USA Today, Larry Kramer, to get people talking about the multiple effects of race in our country.

Some readers may stop reading here not wanting to think about these issues. I hope you are not one of them, since I believe this is an important and current issue in our country, which needs to be discussed. It is these racial issues and maybe not confronting them that have boiled over recently in places like Ferguson, Missouri and New York City.


A number of people did not think this discussion was a good idea and that it might create more animosity than the stated desire of Schultz and Kramer to “…create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time.” The quote came from the USA/Starbucks paper that was available at most Starbucks stores.

The paper has some interesting graphics and statistics. The graphic maps on p. 3 or shown on the website at the following URL http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/10/21/diversity-race-ethnicity-change-100-years/16211133/ illustrate the changing face of America. The thing that struck me in looking at a graphic entitled “What Is the Chance that the Next Person I Meet Will be Different from Me?” was how our country is changing. In 1950 the national number of next meeting a different person was 20%;   by 2010, it had risen to 55%; and by 2060 the percentage jumps to an estimated 71%.

Even more astounding is the state by state break down. Looking specifically at NC, the increases are pretty striking. In the 1950s, the only place where there were percents as high as 56% were in two down east counties. In 2010, that same percentage was seen in 26 of the 100 counties. By 2060 all but 29 exceed the 56% threshold. Even in Watauga County where the percentages of diversity are and have been pretty small, the 2060 figures show 21% chance of meeting a person of a different race. In Mecklenburg County, the percentage in 2060 is estimated to be 73%. Wake County is estimated at 68% in the year 2060.

The goal of the USA Today and Starbucks executives was to get the discussion started; I believe, not to create dissention but to learn how we are alike and probably how we are different as well. We may need to confront unconscious bias on our parts. As a white person, I don’t think I am particularly prejudiced. I certainly don’t want to be.

The published paper describes a telling experiment using a fake legal memo written by a law associate named Thomas Meyer. The memo had 22 deliberate spelling/grammar, technical writing, and analysis errors.   The memo was sent to 60 partners at different law firms around the country; 50% of the readers were told that it was written by a Caucasian and the other 50% were told that it was written by an African-American.

For those who thought they were reading the Caucasian written memo the “grade” was given as an average of 4.1 out of 5. For those who thought Mr. Meyer was African-American, the score was 3.2 out of 5. The Caucasian paper was given comments such as “has potential”; “good analytical skills”; and “generally good writer but needs to work on …”. The paper supposedly written by the African-American associate garnered the following type comments: “needs a lot of work”; “can’t believe he went to NYU”; “average at best”. The average number of errors found by the readers was 10.2 for the Caucasian writer but was 14.6 for the African-American.

The sample was a small one but is significant enough to cause me to wonder if there was some rater bias involved. If this was happening in law firms what would happen in schools, banking, medicine, and elsewhere? Is the bias built on facts or unknown bias manifesting itself? Maybe we need to examine our motivations when we make stereotypical assumptions concerning individuals of different races and ethnicities.

So what am I writing about in a Boomer column dealing with race. It is the Boomer generation that spearheaded the Civil Rights movement and through Presidents Kennedy and Johnson real progress was made. The USA/Starbucks paper reports the chance of a random boomer meeting a person of a different race and ethnicity at 45%. The generation born form 2001-2013 has this percentage at 67%.

The paper questions several ideas, among them the following: 1) How many friends of a different race do I have? 2) How many friends of a different race do my children have? 3)How many times in the last year has someone of a different race visited in my home? And 4) How many times in the past year, have I eaten a meal with someone of a different race?

You may remember that I taught in Charlotte after graduating from Appalachian State. In one of my classes, I had a great kid who served as my assistant. He was African-American, and he and I had developed a great rapport, at least I thought so. One day as we were getting the lab equipment ready for an experiment the next day, we began to talk about race. I was shocked and dismayed when he told me that I could not understand his issues because I was not black. That hurt more than I was willing to let him see. I tried to get him to see that I could and would do my best to understand. It did not work. He was a great kid; a fantastic football player who had won a scholarship to Duke. He had a great signing voice and was in school musical productions. He regularly made the Honor Role. Just an all-around great guy. But here he was telling me that I was prejudiced and could never understand. That discussion and the hurt I felt has remained with me for the past nearly 40 years.

As I read the USA/Starbucks paper, I wonder if he was right those many years ago – I just didn’t understand. In Tucson, being Caucasian and in the majority may not be true for much longer. According to a report in the 2013 Tucson Weekly, “…Hispanics now make up 30 percent of the state’s population, while non-Hispanic whites have dropped from 64 percent to 57 percent of the population…” (http://www.tucsonweekly.com/TheRange/archives/2013/06/14/hispanics-leading-minority-growth-in-az) Even more telling is the fact that if you look at children under the age of 5 (where our future population is coming from) the percent of non-Hispanic whites is 39.1 percent.

Maybe we should do what Rodney King, who was abused in Los Angeles by the police suggested “…just get along.” There are a number of divisive issues raging now including putting the Confederate battle flag on license plates in Texas. The battle flag is the one most often seen these days with stars on an X-shaped feature on a red background. This license plate is currently available in nine states including North Carolina, where a court case was required to mandate its issuance and also is available in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Louisiana. The current case comes from Texas where the state does not want to issue such plates. The Supreme Court will decide the issue and render a verdict probably by June of this year.

Arguments on first amendment rights (free speech) have been made. The question, according to some pundits does not have to do with free speech, which they believe is likened to a bumper sticker, but with a state sanctioned demonstration of a bias contravening the rights of many. The proponents assert that membership in the group Sons of the Confederacy is open to anyone who served in the armies of the Confederacy and that their membership includes whites, blacks, Hispanics, those of Jewish ancestry, and more groups.

Are they a problem or would the discussion of race help the folks opposed to understand the positions? I don’t know, but what I do think is that not talking about the issue and understanding feelings is probably not a good thing. I have ancestors who fought in the Civil War on both sides, as do many families living in the mountains of North Carolina.

But just because something is legally right, does it make it the right thing to do, if it hurts or denigrates others? Do those whose feelings may be hurt by the sight of a symbol that has come to be associated with supporting slavery need to understand this is history and that it occurred?

Germany, for example, does not debate that Hitler and Nazis were there but they feel generally as a people that the swastika, which was the Nazi symbol, is not appropriate to use any more. They have made a decision and talk freely about their past including parts where they are not proud.

I hope that this column does not prevent you from reading future columns. I know this is a controversial topic and feelings will run strong on this topic. Let me hear what you think in the space below or email me at boomerbytes@yahoo.com