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When a Philadelphia Starbucks called the police on two innocent black men, a national controversy ensued, and I decided to write my second open letter about racism to Starbucks CEO, Kevin Johnson. Here it is:
Dear Mr. Johnson:
A couple of years ago, I sent your predecessor, Howard Schultz, a letter. He didn’t get it by mail, though. Instead, it was posted online as an “Open Letter about Race to Starbucks and USA Today” (April 11, 2015). In that letter, I expressed my appreciation for Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign along with the publication “Why Race Together?” and wrote: “This initiative exemplifies corporate responsibility at its finest.” I hastened, though, to add this statement:
Missing from this national (and international) “conversation,” however, is the concept of “unity in diversity.” While the dialogue may imply it, we need to make this social objective explicit.
Conversations, after all, should do more than map out the problems, and go beyond promoting greater understanding. Both are necessary and important. But for real change to occur, all sides need to reach consensus on shared values that serve as a basis for reciprocity in a mutual vision of the future.
I offered Alain Locke as a “national resource” and a “source of inspiration,” especially considering that “Baha’i philosopher Alain Locke … was the most important spokesman for African-Americans between W. E. B. Du Bois and the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Then, on April 4, 2015, I emailed Mr. Schultz through a “customer service” online portal. Starbucks did reply—sort of. On April 17, 2015, I got an email stating, in part: “Your information has been sent to the appropriate Department.” So far, so good. That same day, I then asked: “Will my “Open Letter” be forwarded to Mr. Howard Schultz, as requested?” After that, I never heard back from Starbucks again.
So, Mr. Johnson, I guess you could say that this is my follow-up letter. I just watched the video that Starbucks underwrote, “Story of Access” by documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson. It was excellent, and I applaud you for your nationwide Racial Bias Training that took place on May 29, 2018 in over 8,000 Starbucks stores across America.
I see that Starbucks has released those training materials online. I also commend Starbucks for recommending: “Practice: Becoming color brave” (Team Guidebook, p. 3). I see that the “color brave” motto was coined by Starbucks board member Mellody Hobson (p. 8).
In “Video 3,” American rapper, hip hop recording artist, actor, film producer and poet from Chicago, Common, advises: “It’s a life skill to make someone else in your presence feel welcome, you do that by not only loving what makes them the same as you, but by appreciating what makes them different than you” (p. 10).
Starbucks now defines itself as “the third place” (p. 18)—not home or work, but a common meeting place for all. I’d like to characterize that promising concept of “the third place” as it relates to race relations by quoting a lyric from Leonard Cohen’s song, “Democracy,” which I used to play for my students at the beginning of each semester, when I was a professor at Michigan State University (2000–2004):
It’s coming from the sorrow on the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin’
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away
Democracy is coming to the USA
Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of state!
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on . . .
It’s coming to America first
The cradle of the best and of the worst
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way
Democracy is coming to the USA
– Leonard Cohen, “Democracy,”
Of his song “Democracy,” Leonard Cohen commented:
Democracy is the last great religion, the greatest of all because it accommodates other religions and cultures. If there is one place on earth where democracy has a chance then it’s America, where different races and cultures are condemned to each other, the political system may be in stalemate, it still has a democratic tradition of more than two hundred years – “the machinery of change and the spiritual thirst,” as I sing in ’Democracy’. The United States is still the experimental field of democracy, the arena in which the significant confrontations are taking place: between the races, between classes and between the sexes. That makes life in America so uncomfortable and yet so inspiring. – “Leonard Cohen Affirms His Song “Democracy” Is ’Free Of Irony Or Skepticism’.”
Of course, “Democracy is the last great religion” in the sense of what Robert N. Bellah called “civil religion.” Professor Bellah’s more expansive concept of a “world civil religion” is less well known, yet perhaps far more significant today:
A world civil religion could be accepted as a fulfillment and not as a denial of American civil religion. Indeed, such an outcome has been the eschatological hope of American civil religion from the beginning. To deny such an outcome would be to deny the meaning of America itself.
Readers of BahaiTeachings.org will know that the Baha’i Faith is the youngest of the independent world religions, and so, in Leonard Cohen’s words, is “the last great religion” in the history of religions—but the most recent religion, not the final one.
That relates directly to Starbucks’ concept of a public space as “the third place.” As defined, in part, by Leonard Cohen, “the third place” is one of “the holy places where the races meet.” The Baha’i teachings describe the unity of humanity and the world’s races as a holy principle—and that would make Starbucks a “holy place” in the civil-religious sense of the word.
That’s why I’ve offered Alain Locke—most well known as African American leader of the Harlem Renaissance—as a national treasure and an inspiration for Starbucks and its customers. In 1918, Alain Locke became a Baha’i—and became even more “color brave”—not only by talking about the problem of racial bias and prejudice in America, but also about proposed solutions. In an unpublished essay that I rediscovered in my research, Locke quotes Baha’u’llah, who, on April 16, 1890, famously declared:
That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled … These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family. – Baha’u’llah, quoted by Alain Locke, “The Gospel for the Twentieth Century,” World Order (2005), p. 42.
So I salute Starbucks for its efforts to consciously promote and sustain a “third place” in those public spaces that are “holy places where the races meet”—so that, by being color brave, Americans may some day bring into reality Baha’u’llah’s vision and promise, whereby “differences of race” may “be annulled” when “the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men” are progressively “strengthened” over time.