As it turns out, messages scrawled on the sides of coffee cups can spark an online firestorm. But they don’t do much to start face-to-face conversations about race in America.
That was the takeaway Sunday as Starbucks announced that its employees would no longer be writing “Race Together” on millions of tall-, grande- and venti-size drinks. Although the week-long campaign was attacked online as a case of insincere corporatism, reaction in stores was far more muted, employees at several Washington locations said Sunday. Customers received their coffee orders same as always — saying “Thanks,” and little more.
“People never complained,” said Mimi Worku, 33, a Starbucks employee who thinks she wrote “Race Together” on hundreds of cups. “There was almost like no feedback at all. Just like, ‘Whatever.’ ”
At another D.C. Starbucks, one employee said she spoke with only two customers during the week about the “Race Together” campaign; they hadn’t heard of it until they entered the store and were curious what it was about. After hearing an explanation, they said, “Oh, okay,” the employee said. No discussion of race ensued.
Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz said in a video posted Tuesday on the company’s Web site that he hoped the campaign could “facilitate a conversation” about racial tensions in the United States and perhaps be “catalytic” in moving the nation forward. But others, particularly on Twitter, panned the campaign as tone-deaf — a case of feel-good activism on an issue that is thorny and emotional.
A series of police shootings of unarmed African Americans has stoked outrage in majority-black communities over the past year. Meanwhile, wealth inequality between black and white households is at its highest level since 1989, according to the Pew Research Center.
Undoubtedly Americans are already holding all kinds of discussions about race — many private and some public, including two weeks ago, when President Obama spoke to mark the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala. But the “Race Together” cup-message campaign failed to drive meaningful coffee-shop conversations, some online commentators said, in large part because Americans avoid talking about racial issues unless they’re among those they already trust.
Rinku Sen, executive director of the national nonprofit Race Forward, wrote an open letter to Starbucks supporting the far-reaching initiative to start conversations about race — just not the way Starbucks was doing it.
“We have learned that healthy conversation about race takes courage and time,” Sen said in an interview Sunday. “I don’t know if writing on cups would have generated that good discussion.”
“After many years of being told we should all be colorblind, as if that was possible, a lot of people don’t know how to enter” a conversation about race, she added.
In the aftermath of the Race Together campaign, some of the attention focused on the company itself. Some 40 percent of Starbucks employees are racial minorities, but the company’s executive level is composed overwhelmingly of whites.
“I’m going be watching” how their executive diversity evolves, said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard University professor who directs the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice. “The idea is, are they serious about this? Or is it just another promotional opportunity for them?”
A Starbucks spokeswoman said Sunday that the cup-writing campaign had ended on its planned date and was not halted ahead of time because of public backlash. Schultz, in a letter, thanked employees and said broader elements of the Race Together campaign would continue, with Starbucks holding discussions and partnering with USA Today to create special sections on race.
“While there has been criticism of the initiative — and I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you — let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise,” Schultz said in his letter. “The heart of Race Together has always been about humanity: the promise of the American Dream should be available to every person in this country, not just a select few.”