Monday, March 23, 2015

Starbucks and the State of Our Disunion

It’s admirable when successful business leaders like, say, The Body Shop’s Anita Roddick or Virgin’s Richard Branson place as much emphasis on changing the world as on profits. But Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz may have come up with a socially responsible idea that is likely to fall flat on both scores. Sure, he has good intentions, but we all know where the road paved with those leads.

Schultz has used the company previously as a platform to address marriage equality and gun control. Now he is launching a new campaign at his coffee chain to defuse the powder keg of racial tensions in America by sparking that “national conversation about race” we’ve been hearing about ever since former Attorney General Eric Holder called us “a nation of cowards” for not talking about it. Schultz hopes that this conversation will begin between his baristas and their customers.

“What if we were to write ‘Race Together’ on every Starbucks cup, and that facilitated a conversation between you and our customers?” he explained in a painfully earnest video message to employees and partners. “And what if our customers as a result of that had a renewed level of understanding and sensitivity about the issue, and they themselves would spread that to their own sphere of influence?”

Worthy intentions aside, there are so many things wrong with the mechanics of this initiative that I don’t know where to begin. Who pops into Starbucks with enough time on his or her hands to chat up a barista about what is possibly the most tangled and emotional topic that we wrestle with as a nation? Doesn’t the barista have work to do, other customers to serve? Likewise, doesn’t the customer have a job to get to or a screenplay to write? Aren’t there people waiting in line who are hurrying to work as well?

Even assuming both parties have nothing better to do, how is the employee expected to engage a customer who asks about the “#RaceTogether” hashtag scrawled on his tiramisu frappuccino? What could any barista say that isn’t the most awkward convo-starter ever between strangers at a place of business? “Well sir, we at Starbucks would like to raise your awareness about your unconscious racism.” “Here’s your venti caramel flan latte, ma’am. That ‘#RaceTogether’ on your cup is a reminder to have more empathy for the Ferguson rioters.”

If the ice does get broken, what do we then discuss? Can we talk about black-on-white crime? About the political agendas of those who have a vested interest in inflaming racial tensions? Or is this national conversation going to be limited to lectures about white privilege and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”? It’s an impossibly sensitive and complex subject to broach with a total stranger in the span of a couple of minutes.

The initiative is not mandatory for employees, or I imagine that there would be mass resignations, but I actually pity the coffee-pourer who nonetheless probably feels pressured to have the special insight or moral authority to hold forth with strangers on race relations. It doesn’t help that, in the-customer-is-always-right America, the barista isn’t on equal footing.

Many responded to this business-stifling idea by promising to “race together” to a competitor’s coffee shop from now on. It prompted such a backlash of ridicule on social media that the company’s senior vice president of communications temporarily deleted his Twitter account. That response isn’t because people want to avoid facing the problem; it’s because Americans don’t need or want their coffee cashiers to enlighten them about race, empathy, and tolerance.

Does this country have a racism problem? Yes and no. America is the most inclusive and diverse country on the planet, and too many people forget that or don’t want to acknowledge it. And yet race relations presently seem worse than at any time since the 1960s. There can’t be any adult in the country who isn’t already painfully aware of this and doesn’t have strong opinions about it. As a writer at Fast Company put it, presenting people with the opportunity doesn't necessarily raise awareness of the matter; “it just raises awareness of Starbucks’s awareness.”

Years ago in an interview with Mike Wallace, actor Morgan Freeman was asked how we could solve racism in America. His answer – “Stop talking about it” – is arguably the most insightful advice that has ever been offered about race in America. Freeman wasn’t suggesting that we sweep racism under the rug, but that we quit picking at our racial resentment and simply move forward treating each other as equals.

That’s easier said than done, and it’s a process that will take a generation or two or three of the hard work of rejecting the race-baiters, putting things in the past, and learning to see ourselves as Americans first. In all fairness to Howard Schultz, honest discussion is never a bad thing – just not when a line of customers is behind you itching for their caffeine fix.

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/20/15)