Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz writes “Race Together” on a coffee cup. (Starbucks)

Starbucks has always wanted to be seen as a different kind of corporation. Its employees are called “partners,” it subsidizes college tuition for its baristas and its leadership has spoken out on issues ranging from gay marriage to gun control.

“Staying silent is not who we are,” chief executive Howard Schultz said at an employee forum in December.

It’s on that basis the coffee company has made the perilous decision take on one of the nation’s most polarizing subjects: race relations.

In partnership with USA Today, Starbucks has launched a week-long campaign under the banner “Race Together” to get staff and customers talking about race. In a video message, Schultz urges “partners” to write the phrase on their paper cups “to facilitate a conversation between you and our customers.” A USA Today supplement, set to be published March 20, includes a number of “conversation starters,” including the fill-in-the-blank question: “In the past year, I have been to the home of someone of a different race ___ times.”


(Starbucks)

The idea for “Race Together” apparently came from employee forums Schultz launched last December. The first was impromptu, inspired by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the conversations about racial inequality that surrounded them. It went so well, Schultz said, that the company organized similar events in five other cities.

“At the end of every open forum partners have come up to me and said ‘We must do more,'” Schultz said in his video. “… The fact that you have asked me, encouraged me, is why I have so much faith that this is the right decision for our company.”

The concrete goals of the campaign — other than an apparent desire to turn the 21st century chain into an Enlightment-era coffee house — are still unclear, though Starbucks said the initiative will be further outlined at a shareholders meeting Wednesday.

Meanwhile, in the proud tradition of so many corporate social issue campaigns that came before it, this one has been thoroughly skewered online. A good portion of the tweets marked with the #RaceTogether hashtag were criticizing, rather than celebrating, the campaign.

Some argued that the focus on “togetherness” ignored larger issues:

Others thought it seemed hypocritical for a company whose leadership team is mostly white:

The campaign also provided plenty of fodder for mockery via a #NewStarbucksDrinks hashtag:

But the center of controversy is a position that Schultz seems to relish — or at least, one he doesn’t mind risking to speak his mind. In 2013, when a shareholder questioned the company’s public support for gay marriage, Schultz replied: “We want to embrace diversity. … It is a free country. You can sell your shares in Starbucks.”

That same year, the company issued a request that customers not bring weapons into its stores, including guns. Like the “Race Together” campaign, this made Starbucks the target of Internet backlash and the butt of occasional jokes.

But Schultz, a registered Democrat whose office features photographs of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., according to a Seattle Times profile, kept at it. In a manner described as “dutiful” if occasionally “spin-heavy,” he became a face of corporate responsibility in the United States, with unemployment reduction and support for returning veterans the cornerstones of his social agenda. He has also lent the weight of his more than $50 billion company to try and pressure Congress into ending gridlock: In the summer of 2011, he got 100 business leaders to withhold campaign donations, and during the 2013 government shutdown he asked baristas in D.C. to write “come together” on Washingtonians’ cups.

The campaign didn’t end the shutdown — that took five more days of partisan battle — and it’s unlikely that cheery coffee cup messages are going to resolve America’s race issues in a week.

But Schultz seems determined to try.

“It is an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society,” he said in a press release. “One conversation at a time.”

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