The Witness

4 Ways Starbucks Was Confused About Race

Jarvis Williams

With good intentions, Starbucks recently launched a “Race Together” campaign in order to help foster a conversation about racial equality. This campaign was quickly ditched due to the enormous backlash the coffee empire received in the media. According to Jim Olson, a company spokesman, the chain will continue its efforts to foster an open dialogue about race without the baristas writing messages on cups. As a multi-racial, African-American man, I appreciate Starbucks’ desire to encourage a needed dialogue about race in this country. On the other hand, as a Christian, I think their efforts simply reinforce our country’s confusion about the current racial divide. Starbucks’ confusion about race can be seen in at least four ways.

1. Starbucks made no efforts in their campaign to explain clearly how this company was defining the categories of race and racism.

Many people use these words as though the meanings are self-evident when, in fact, they are not. In my view, race is always a social construct, but socially constructed by different people for different reasons (see my recent RAAN article entitled “The Myth of the ‘Myth’ of Racism”). In this country, the concept of race was a racist social construct, constructed by the dominant white culture to keep the sub-dominant non-white culture subordinate. Whites in the U.S. have constructed the category of the black race based on caricatures derived from Darwinian evolution, polygenism (the belief that distinct genetic histories originated and developed separately), craniometry (the theory that one’s moral character, intelligence, and race can be determined from measuring one’s skull), and eugenics (the belief that society can be improved by the promoting a higher reproduction rate of people with desired traits and reducing the reproduction of people with less-desired traits).[1] It is, therefore, impossible to talk about race or racism in this country without having an honest discussion about the meaning of race and whiteness, such as how and why phrases like the “black race” entered into the American narrative, and why, until recent history, the “white race” thought the “black race” should have no rights in this country.

2. Starbucks reduced the very complicated discussion of race and racism to a simplistic one-liner written on a cup.

This minimizes the gravity of racism in this country and ignores the need for Americans to repent regularly of racism against all sorts of “others”. Yes, the U.S. has come a long way since the days of slavery, lynching, and Jim Crow laws. However, the U.S. still has many racial and racist problems. To this day, many blacks and minorities still suffer systemic racism because of the enduring effects and aftermath of the sin of white supremacist ideas in this country. Even the white majority experiences racism because of Adam’s sin and as a result of laws that were implemented to rectify racism against blacks and other minorities. The Starbucks’ campaign seems to have misunderstood that racism in the U.S. and beyond is much worse than we are willing to believe.

3. The Starbucks’ initiative assumed that people actually want to dialogue about race.

Two of the most difficult things to talk about in certain places in this country are religion and race—not to mention the difficulty of talking about the symbiotic impact of American religion on race and race on American religion. Blacks and other minorities have been talking about race for years, because they’ve had no choice, whereas many (although not all) whites for many years have been able to altogether avoid discussions on race since they have enjoyed the privilege of being the dominant racial group.

But the racial uproars in Ferguson, New York City, and other parts of the country over what many perceive as racial injustices have required more white Americans to think seriously and to speak publicly about issues related to race and racism. Although there are those in the dominant white and privileged culture and a few privileged minorities who continue to ignore or deny that race and racism are still very much part of this country’s DNA, more and more white Americans and privileged minorities are beginning to recognize that racism is still very much alive and well, even in the legal fabric of the U.S., which many would say the Department of Justice report in Ferguson affirmed at some level. However, these truths have not motivated a national discussion on race in the public square, as we can see from the negative response of both white and minority Americans to the Starbucks’ initiative. On the contrary, encouragement to talk about race or racism makes some people want to avoid the discussions all the more, especially when they’re encouraged to do so before having their morning coffee.

4. The Starbucks’ campaign attempted to create a discussion without adequately diagnosing the problem and without offering any real solutions to the problem.

The Gospel tells us that the reason for racism is the universal power of sin over the entire cosmos and sin’s effects over every social structure in creation (Genesis 3; Romans 3:23; 6:1-23; 8:19-39). The solution to racism is not a handwritten slogan on a coffee cup, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ —“the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16), lived out in the real world with real people in the church and society.

For example, after Paul argues that both Jews and Gentiles are guilty before God and under his just condemnation due to their sin (Romans 1:18-3:20), he contends that God offered Jesus Christ to pay for their sins in order to justify them by faith and to incorporate them into the people of God (Romans 3:21-4:25). In Romans 3:21-22 and in 3:24, Paul discusses God’s saving righteousness and justification. He asserts that God’s saving righteousness is revealed apart from the law by faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:21-22). In Romans 3:22b-23, he expresses that God’s revelation of his righteousness is by faith because Jews and Gentiles have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, regardless of ethnic distinctions. In Romans 3:24, Paul continues that all must be freely justified (declared to be in the right) by God’s grace through the redemption provided by Jesus’s death. To be justified by God’s grace in Romans 3:24 is another way of emphasizing the revelation of God’s righteousness by faith in Romans 3:21-22.

In Romans 4:6-8, Paul states that the reason God renders the verdict “not guilty” upon those who have faith in Jesus Christ is because God reckoned/counted to Jesus’s account the sinners’ sins and he reckoned/counted to the sinners’ account Christ’s righteousness. This reckoning of sin to Christ’s account and this reckoning of righteousness to the sinners’ account exonerates sinners in God’s court of law. In Romans 3:28-30, Paul uses ethnic vocabulary in the context of justification. He asserts that God is the God of both Jews and Gentiles since he declares both groups to be in the right and to be his people by faith in Jesus Christ.

But why does God accept both Jews and Gentiles by faith and why does he justify them by faith even though they are still sinners (Romans 3:23; 5:8)? The answer is in Romans 3:25: God offered Jesus to be an atoning sacrifice for Jews and Gentiles so that he would propitiate (put an end to) his wrath due to their sins and so that he would forgive them of their sins by faith. Paul confirms this in Romans 4:6-8 and 4:25 when he affirms that God does not count the transgressions of the justified against the transgressors who have faith in Jesus (Romans 4:7-8) because he handed Jesus over in death for their sins and raised him from the dead to achieve their justification (Romans 4:24-25).

The sufficiency of Jesus’s death for sinners is certain because God also raised him up from the dead for their justification. Consequently, the Gospel of the crucified, resurrected, and glorified Jewish Lord and Christ freely offers to and accomplishes for every tongue, tribe, people, and nation God’s solution to the problem of racism and his provision for racial reconciliation. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, the one and true living God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ becomes the one God of Jews and Gentiles (Romans 3:21-29).

The Starbucks’ initiative reminds us that every man-made solution to the racial divide will fail, and every sociological explanation of racism will be incomplete. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ will succeed in rightly diagnosing the fundamental problem and offering the fundamental solution: namely, the reconciliation of all things in Christ. If and when this Gospel is preached and faithfully obeyed in the real world, with real people in both church and society, racism will suffer a death blow—a reconciliation that a Starbucks’ initiative will never accomplish!

Disclaimer: RAAN is an organization committed to providing a variety of Reformed voices a platform to share their content. While our contributors subscribe to the basic tenets of Reformed thought, they offer a diverse number of opinions on various topics. As such, our staff members may not share our contributors’ opinions and publishing this content shouldn’t be viewed in such a way.

[1]Above definitions paraphrased from Rebecca F. Kennedy, C. Snyder Roy, and Max L. Goldman, Race and Ethnicity in the Classical World: An Anthology of Primary Sources in Translation (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2013), xv footnotes 4-6.

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