April 20, 2019 | 58° F

ABRAMS: Schultz’s 2020 bid is selfish media stunt


Opinion Column: Thank U, Next Opinion


A baby boomer Brooklynite who spent his childhood in a government-subsidized enclave, now-billionaire Howard Schultz’s underdog story is admirable — if not a textbook definition of the increasingly elusive American Dream. Breaking from the reins of public housing in the 1970s, Schultz attended Northern Michigan University and graduated with a degree in speech communication before beginning a career as a Xerox salesman. It was Schultz’s background in sales that supported his career at Starbucks as director of marketing and later as chairman and CEO. 

Potential 2020 voters should not fail to expect a similar pattern if Schultz chooses to seek an independent campaign for president — one that uses his knowledge in sales to sway naïve voters of his brand as if he is selling a Xerox printer or overpriced coffee. Like that of any actor in the capitalistic system trying to earn our money and admiration, voters should expect Schultz’s 2020 effort to be just as disingenuous. 

Schultz’s proposed presidential bid in 2020 seems to be a self-serving neoliberal press stunt to me. 

We can look at his career at Starbucks for evidence that he has a record of participating in such stunts. In May 2018, as executive chairman of Starbucks (after stepping down as CEO in 2016), he spearheaded a weak, widely-publicized effort to clear up Starbuck’s image through “racial bias training” in response to the criticized arrest of two innocent Black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks in April 2018. The incident spurred media frenzy after a provocative video surfaced that many perceived to be the result of unjustified racial profiling due to prejudices against the Black community and stereotypes associated with Black people and crime. 

In response to the frenzy, Schultz leapt aggressively and desperately to catch the media’s attention. He made appearances on a variety of cable news shows to clear Starbucks’ name and affirm its commitment to social justice. He then used the extra attention to promote racial bias training, which took place on May 29, 2018 at 8,000 locations. 

Many Starbucks employees who attended the training criticized it as a short, incomprehensible press stunt designed to calm negative media attention. While the training was intended to be a panacea for eliminating subconscious, implicit biases, employees rightfully pointed out that implicit bias is not something that dissolves overnight, as it is a way of thinking that we are usually socialized to have at a young age and is guided by our intuitions. Which is why it is called “subconscious” bias. 

In an interview with Time Magazine, a Starbucks employee in Arkansas said that she did not believe the training was impactful because “just driving an hour down the road takes you to towns where racism is alive and well.” Surely Schultz and Starbucks leadership had some sort of hunch that a half-day “training” to solve an issue that is embedded in most people’s subconscious minds was not going to leave an indelible impact on employees. So, why did they insist on having such a training? 

The reason for Schultz’s push for the training is the same reason that he is considering an independent run for president of the United States in 2020 — to promote his personal brand and cement his legacy in history. By responding as he did to the Philadelphia racial profiling controversy, Schultz was practicing the same phony, attention-seeking neoliberal identity politics while toying with the idea of a presidential run.

It is important to note that the reason neoliberals engage in identity politics in the first place is primarily to present themselves as inclusive, and therefore likable, so that they can secure reliable voting blocs at the ballot box. For the most part, their efforts are not genuine — just as Starbucks’ racial bias training was not a genuine effort to eradicate racial bias, and Schultz’s proposed presidential campaign is not a genuine effort to eradicate increasingly polarized party politics. 

Schultz’s training in sales and track record of orchestrating press stunts at Starbucks tells us all we need to know about his motives in the 2020 race. If anything, he simply wants to be remembered for challenging status quo politics by “selling” himself and his rags-to-riches story to a few stray, gullible voters the same way Starbucks sells $5 lattes to gullible college students. 

As any angry Democrat knows, 2020 is not the time to lose voters to such a self-serving cause.

Ashley Abrams is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in  political science. Her column, "Thank U, Next Opinion," runs on  alternate Wednesdays.

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Ashley Abrams

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