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Leonard Pitts: People in power bear responsibility

Racism is a white problem.

I know that many white people will instinctively and emphatically resist that observation. They’ll note the self-evident truth that prejudice is confined to no one culture or color. Having known more than a few African-American bigots, homophobes and anti-Semites, I’ll be happy to concede the point.

But racism is more than prejudice. It is, rather, the system by which prejudice is encoded into the laws and customs of a society so that, to take an example not quite at random, two black men can be arrested for waiting quietly on a prospective business associate to arrive for a meeting at Starbucks.

People of color have no access to the system that allows that. So, while they must figure out how to live under racism, racism itself is not their problem. The system was built by and for white people; it’s up to them to dismantle it.

That’s a truth white men and women often find difficult to process. I’m reminded of something a white, Southern-born colleague wrote in 1995. The late Michael Browning and I were traveling the South doing interviews and visiting historic sites for a series of essays on race.

Ask forgiveness?

In Atlanta, we sat down with the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a former aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he mentioned a question he said he asked white people in his racial justice seminars: “Have you ever gotten down on your knees and asked God to forgive you for your racism?”

The question struck Michael like an uppercut. Here’s what he wrote: “Vivian looks at me. The question is no longer rhetorical, but I do not reply. Southern irresolution: How, if I am as benevolent as I think I am, can black people see me as such a monster? Am I an inert part of some vast, weighty boulder of oppression? Do I injure blacks by breathing, and just being white?”

Irresolution is a common response. So are defensiveness and denial, rationalization, justification and a kind of puffed-up indignation accessible only to the profoundly entitled and entirely clueless. Think of that look on Sean Hannity’s face when he has to discuss, well, anything having to do with race.

What you are less likely to encounter when confronted by racism is white people who will own the problem, who will have the guts, humanity and humility required to confront it, assess it and resolve it. So this column is a standing ovation for Starbucks.

Last week, faced with the public relations disaster noted above, CEO Kevin Johnson did all the expected things. He said what happened was wrong. He issued apologies. He did the whole this-is-not-who-we-are routine.

Then, Johnson did something unexpected, announcing the closure of 8,000 company-owned U.S. stores on the afternoon of May 29 so that his nearly 175,000 employees can undergo training in preventing implicit bias. Given how difficult it can be to get white people to even acknowledge the reality of implicit bias, we ought not breeze past the significance of that.

Starbucks deserves credit for one of the most authentic and creative corporate responses in recent memory. One of the bravest, too, given the likely hit to the company’s coffers the mass closure represents.

Whipped out cellphones

And as we are singing praises, let’s spare a stanza or two for the white civilians at Starbucks who saw what was happening, whipped out their cellphones to record it and demanded answers from the cops. Nor should we forget those who showed up and showed out at subsequent protests.

One can only hope other white people are taking note. Other white institutions, too. Meaning coffee shops, yes, but also libraries, churches, supermarkets, gyms and police departments. Ultimately, after all, this is not a Starbucks problem, but an American problem. And until we face it, the next public relations disaster — or tragedy — is always just around the corner.

It would be good to see Americans — particularly white Americans — take ownership of that truth. To its credit, Starbucks just did.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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