EDITORIAL: Starbucks, ABC and racial bias responses
There was some irony to the fact that on the day that one national company, Starbucks, closed up shop to engage in “racial-bias education” another national company, ABC, fired one of its most lucrative stars for making a racially offensive comment.
The simultaneous episodes reflect the complicated state of racial relations in America today — and the often unwieldy efforts taken to address them.
ABC had little choice but to dump Roseanne Barr from its lineup in the wake of the indefensible “joke” she tweeted out last week comparing a former member of President Obama’s administration — a woman of color — to an ape. There was nothing remotely humorous about the ugly statement. (Although Barr’s subsequent attempt to blame it on the effects of a sedative drew smirks.)
The star’s reboot of her eponymous 1980s/’90s sitcom “Roseanne” had been the network’s biggest hit this year. And its premise, that the star was a supporter of President Donald Trump, was said to herald a new direction for network comedy in courting the #MAGA crowd.
That strategy is now in doubt after ABC cut ties with the money-making sit-com. But let’s not give too much credit to the decision. The network that fired the controversial comedian with a history of racial insensitivity also hired the controversial comedian with a history of racial insensitivity.
To paraphrase the parable, ABC knew she was a snake when they picked her up.
And while co-stars and staffers — including consulting producer Wanda Sykes — were already heading for the exits before the decision to ax the series was announced, what of the ABC executives who remain? What lessons are to be learned in weighing controversial talent against profit margins?
By booting Barr and her series, ABC has dismissed the problem but not necessarily faced up to it. Starbucks at least made an attempt at the latter, more difficult exercise.
Recall, the firm came under heavy and deserved criticism in April after a Philadelphia store manager called the cops on two African-American men who were sitting in the café awaiting a third friend’s arrival before placing an order. In response, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson ordered the company’s more than 8,000 locations to close for several hours May 29 so its approximately 175,000 staffers could take part in racial sensitivity training.
Clearly, a problem as deeply rooted as racial bias is not going to be solved, or even mitigated, in an afternoon. But recognizing that the issue requires organized, systemic attention is a welcome first step.
ABC would be well-served by instituting a similar exercise. Indeed, much as with sexual harassment training, racial bias training should be made a regular part of ongoing human resources offerings at every company concerned with how its employees interact with one another — and the public.
One need look no further than the recent dispute at the Grandview Golf Course in Dover, where police were called on a group of African-American women who were allegedly playing slowly, to see where such training could provide benefits.
Corporations that are serious about creating a culture of inclusivity, of promoting a diverse and equitable workforce, must take concrete steps toward these goals — preferably before any ugly incidents erupt.
Starbucks took a positive step in committing time and resources to launching a companywide effort to address racial bias. It must now follow through. And other corporations — ABC foremost among them — must follow suit.