The good news, I guess, is that Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz realizes that racism is a problem. The bad news is that he thinks he has figured out what step to take next: He will urge baristas to write “race together” on your $5 coffee, and then they will explain to you about the need for compassion and about how we, as a nation, are better than that.
I wish I were making this up. I am not.
“I’m asking you to perform that small gesture of writing ‘Race Together’ on a cup,” Schultz urges Starbucks employees, in a video. “And if a customer asks you what this is, try and engage in a discussion, that we have problems in this country with regard to race and racial inequality, and we believe we’re better than this, and we believe the country’s better than this. And if this makes you have a conversation with a customer about the need for compassion, the need for empathy, the need for love towards others, if you can do that with one customer one day, then you’re making a significant difference as we go forward.”
“I think this is really important,” Schultz concluded, “not so much for the company, but for the country.”
The idea — that the revolutionary action needed in our nation’s continued entanglement with racism is writing a phrase on a Starbucks cup — is a frothy combination of one pump hubris, three pumps privilege and four shots of I-can’t-even.
Sure. That was what we were missing. Nailed it, Howard.
Again, it’s great that the chief executive of a major corporation is aware that this is a problem. I guess? But he must be pretty well cocooned from reality if this is the action he thinks is called for. This is so far from a good next step that a carrier pigeon flying from this to a good next step would die of old age. Does Schultz have any reason to think this is not going to go over like a lead balloon covered in “Serena” DVDs?
“I know! I’ll tell my employees to explain racism to our customers!” is one of the most tone-deaf things I have heard all week, and I spent much of last night playing the accordion.
Starbucks customers are snippy, bordering on insufferable, at the best of times. I know. I’m one myself. I cannot imagine trying to tell them about “compassion, the need for empathy, the need for love towards others” BEFORE they have gotten access to caffeine.
How does Schultz picture this going, exactly? I assume what he pictures is something like this, because he lives in cloudcuckooland where writing “come together” on coffee cups was Really What Turned The Tide in Congress.
Starbucks Customer: One flat white, please.
Starbucks Customer: A. Terrible Racist. That is my name, but it also describes me. I am a terrible racist.
Barista: (smiling, writes “Race Together” on cup next to impeccably spelled name)
Starbucks Customer: “Race together”? What’s this?
Barista: (smiling more broadly) I’m so glad you asked. We have problems in this country with regard to race and racial inequality.
Starbucks Customer: What? No!
Barista: But I believe we’re better than this, and I believe the country’s better than this. And that’s why there’s need for compassion, and need for empathy, and need for love towards others.
Starbucks Customer: Wow. You’re so right. I never saw that before, but wow. I have a lot of people to apologize to, and I’m going to go pay this forward, you ever bet! I’m telephoning all my uncles immediately to explain why they are wrong!
Barista: Great. Can I help whoever’s next, please?
If you have ever been to a Starbucks, or spoken to a human being, ever, about race or even a less sensitive subject such as whether the Colts are likely to win, you will know that this is not how it is likely to go. If a single conversation goes like that, I will eat my hat from a unicorn horn, garnished with hen’s teeth.
What will happen instead is that a lot of people will become upset and confused as to why they are getting words with their coffee. Some people will not be able to read what it says on the cup and will bellow, angrily, “My name isn’t Rack Steghter! What are you trying to pull?” and — the cause of conversation seems almost excruciatingly unlikely to advance.
But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people have been exaggerating the difficulty all this time, saying there were centuries upon centuries of history to take into account, that we still had a ways to go. That we had a lot of heavy lifting and serious talking and thinking and listening to do about whether the playing field was as level as we imagined, and what to do next. That we needed to puzzle over the legacy of redlining and the culture of our police forces and the facts of disproportionate incarceration, and that this would only be the beginning.
Maybe, all along, what needed to happen was for Howard Schultz to urge Starbucks baristas to write “Race Together” on our cups and offer to engage us in a discussion about race. (Also, “Race Together”? What does that even mean? Does he want us to … run somewhere?)
Not that a conversation wouldn’t be useful. Not that we don’t need to talk about this. We do. And the kind of people with the discretionary income to drink at Starbucks need to listen, especially. But — you have to be pretty far up your own percolator to think this is the way of going about it.
Twitter has, of course, mashed this idea into a nice fine hash, with hashtags for #NewStarbucksDrinks and reasonable criticisms of the plan. “So Starbucks both starts to serve alcohol and encourage their baristas to discuss race relations. Nothing about this seems like a bad idea,” tweeted @daniecal.
“If Schultz wants Starbucks workers to perform racial reconciliation for him, he sure as [bleep] better pay more than $10/hour,” tweeted Julia Carrie Wong.
“The only folks happy about Starbucks baristas discussing race with customers are the suits who run it. Feel-good liberalism at its worst,” tweeted TNR’s Jamil Smith.
“I am 100% interested in engaging with Starbucks employees in a conversation about race. Let’s start with anyone _but_ the baristas. VPs! HR!” suggested ThinkUp co-founder Anil Dash.
At the beginning of the video, Schultz anticipates the criticism. “Howard,” he says people told him, “this is not a subject we should touch.”
“I reject that,” he said. “I reject that completely. We can’t leave this for someone else.”
You should have listened to people, Howard.