Hey there, coffee drinker. Welcome to Starbucks. Take your time with deciding. Notice the recently added tiramisu latte. It comes with a “dusting” of cocoa powder.
Have you heard? Images emerged yesterday showing a bloodied, African American University of Virginia student screaming “racists” at white cops arresting him. What are your thoughts on the racial implications?
What’s that? You just want a macchiato? Sure thing. While we wait, did you hear about the white University of Oklahoma frat boys? Yep, the ones singing that racist song — wait, what’s that? Yes, sir, your macchiato will be ready in just one minute.
Of all the things that can make Americans feel squeamish — in-laws, hair in food — few matters are more likely to elicit discomfort than discussions of racial tension with a Starbucks barista. But despite the apparent and much commented upon pitfalls of such an endeavor, this is exactly what Starbucks wants: lattes and real talk on race.
But the noble idea, called “Race Together” and introduced this week, has been greeted with groans.
A Daily Beast commentary called it “brew-tally dumb.”
From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writing in Time: “Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s bold decision to encourage his baristas to discuss race relations with willing customers has filled me with shock and awe. I’m in awe of his courageous and good-hearted attempt to do something to bring about better awareness of racism. I’m in awe that he’s willing to put morality above profits. I’m in awe that he’s willing to endure the snarky ridicule and lame coffee jokes from pundits as well as the inevitable death threats from clueless trolls. All with nothing personally or corporately to gain — and a lot to lose. But while in awe of his chutzpah, I’m also in shock that he thinks this will actually work.”
“Honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well,” wrote “PBS NewsHour” anchor Gwen Ifill on Twitter.
“For the many and varied reasons people choose to work at Starbucks,” wrote Philip Terzian in the Weekly Standard, “a managerial command to talk to customers about race seems highly unlikely. Suppose a hapless barista should say the wrong thing, or offend some sensitive coffee drinker? Race, and intimations of racism, are not the same as talking about sports or the weather: People lose their livelihood, and lives are blighted, by racial discourse.”
It’s no secret that many are reluctant to broach the topic of race. But it may be especially so at a place like Starbucks, where many are content to buy coffee, take a moment of quiet, and exit. Then there’s the fact that most of Starbucks’s top executives are white, while many of its baristas — the ones tasked with wading into those incendiary waters — are not.
“There’s nothing wrong with talking about race relations,” Laura Ries, an Atlanta branding consultant, told the Associated Press. “But is it something people naturally associate with Starbucks? It’s not.”
The idea was so derided that one of the executives driving the initiative, Corey duBrowa, deleted his Twitter profile. “Last night, around midnight, I deleted my Twitter account,” he wrote on Medium on Wednesday, saying he’s now back on. “I also blocked a handful of Twitter users — given the hostile nature of what I was seeing, it felt like the right thing to do. … I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity. I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted.”
On Wednesday, Starbucks leaders went to great lengths to describe their rationale, which they’re standing by. At a shareholders meeting in Seattle, Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz, who has also discussed gun rights and gay marriage, defended Race Together. “Race is an unorthodox and even uncomfortable topic for an annual meeting,” he said. “Where others see costs, risks, excuses and hopelessness, we see and create pathways of opportunity.”
Others perceived the gambit as a sly attempt to position Starbucks as the compassionate, racially aware coffee conglomerate and to hopefully ratchet up profits. “This is not about starting a conversation,” Jeetendr Sehdev of the University of Southern California told the Times. “This is about coffee wars. The sole objective here is to try to increase the brand’s cultural relevance.”
No one’s questioning that Race Together made Starbucks culturally relevant — but, perhaps, not quite in the right way. “Here’s your macchiato!” wrote writer Daniel Jose Older, tweeting a picture of a white barista. “Let’s discuss the historic disenfranchisement of your people that has allowed me to prosper.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz.