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Starbucks 'Race Together' effort generates conversation about itself

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz wants to do something about America’s troubled race relations. But his 'Race Together' message on coffee cups has brought a sharp backlash.

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Barista Holly Ainslie, puts a “Race Together” sticker on an iced drink at a Starbucks store in Seattle. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced at the company's annual shareholder meeting that baristas will be putting the stickers on cups and also writing the words "#RaceTogether" for customers in an effort to raise awareness and discussion of race relations.

Ted S. Warren/AP

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There’s no denying Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s earnestness in launching the company’s effort to do something about race relations in America today.

Persistent economic inequality, police shooting of unarmed black men, racist chants at college fraternities – he’s as troubled as anybody by what he sees in society today regarding race. The difference is, he has a huge megaphone to express himself and the huge corporation he heads.

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“I’m asking you to perform that small gesture of writing ‘Race Together’ on a cup,” Mr. Schultz tells 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.”

It’s unclear how many of those conversations have taken place between Starbucks baristas and customers deciding whether to order their usual grande soy latte or go for the 24-ounce venti.

But for sure, Schultz’s #RaceTogether effort – announced at the company’s annual meeting in Seattle this week – is generating controversy and what seems to be mostly critical comment.

Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez puts it succinctly and accurately:

“The press has panned the idea, by and large without explaining its genesis, and critics on social media have savaged it,” she writes. “The prevailing attitudes are snark and dudgeon. How dare a purveyor of pricey beverages presume to address such a serious issue, with its grim historical underpinnings and taboo charge, in such an unserious setting!”

For example, Bloomberg View columnist Ramesh Ponnuru says, “To some of us it seems as though Americans talk about race all the time.”

“We have talked about race and law enforcement seemingly nonstop for months,” he writes. “We talk about racial diversity and the Oscars. We even talk about the racial background of Santa Claus.”

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Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker points out that “Schultz isn’t new to corporate activism.”

“But this time he seems aggressively out of touch with his target audience,” she writes. “Nobody wants to be lectured before her coffee; Starbucks denizens, who often are toting newspapers and laptops, don’t want to be lectured, period.”

The pushback against Starbucks now is getting its own pushback.

“The smart, cocky cynicism in response to Starbucks' effort is one big reason it is so hard to get to the good part of a real, informative conversation on any topic, including race relations,” writes Fox News commentator Juan Williams. “It is not only that whites might fear being called racist and tapping into guilty feelings while blacks fear being told they have a chip on their shoulders and play the victim/race card. It is also Hispanics, Asians and recent immigrants biting their tongues about the racial stereotypes they face as they are forced to listen as blacks and whites dominate their limited, two-way, jousting about slavery, its legacy and even ‘micro-aggressions’ of ‘white privilege.’”

CNN commentator Van Jones points out that much of the criticism about Starbuck’s #RaceTogether effort (which includes full-page ads in The New York Times and a special section in USA Today) is coming from those actively working for racial equality.

“Yes, it seems like harmless fun to pile on or retweet the snark. At some point, all of us have enjoyed the cheap thrill one gets by kicking around a big company online,” he writes. “But the cost this time is that no corporation will want to do anything creative or constructive on racial subjects for a very long time. In fact, some activists are responding with such little sympathy, empathy and grace, that other corporations are likely to run the other way. Again, is that what we want?”

“Race Together” is not a solution, Schultz acknowledges, “but it is an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time.” 

It’s unclear how many conversations on race will happen because of stickers or hand-written notes on coffee cups. For sure, it’s started a vigorous discussion about Starbucks itself.