Culture, Science & Faith

Starbucks Brews Race Controversy

A business with an unmistakable aura of holier-than-thou self-righteousness.

Arnold Ahlert · Mar. 23, 2015

It’s not often that a business with an unmistakable aura of holier-than-thou self-righteousness is willing to up the ante on its own obnoxiousness. But last week Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz plowed ahead with a political campaign that consists of printing the words “Race Together” on the chain’s coffee cups and giving coffee-serving baristas the option of engaging in a discussion about race with their customers. USA Today will buttress this initiative with a series of inserts containing info on race relations from a variety of perspectives. The inserts will also be available at Starbucks coffee shops.

Then, over the weekend, Schultz informed Starbucks employees that writing “Race Together” on the company’s coffee cups will no longer be encouraged. Schultz claimed that phase of his effort had always been scheduled to end Sunday, but he also insisted the rest of the campaign remains “far from over.” Perhaps. Yet one suspects several other revisions might be forthcoming if Starbucks’ bottom line is affected. Even “enlightened” capitalism has its financial limits.

Schultz’s foray into political activism is hardly a sea change. In 2013, he wrote an open letter to (former?) customers “with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.” He claimed it was an effort to avoid politics, but in doing so he made it political.

And as recently as last year, the coffee chain apparently felt compelled to issue a statement reassuring its customers that neither Starbucks nor Schultz provides financial support to Israel, nor to its army, following its 2003 decision to close all of its shops in that nation due to “operational challenges we experienced in that market.” The same statement indicated there was no intention to re-address those challenges, even as Starbucks operates stores in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates via its partnership with Kuwaiti-based family business MH Alshaya WLL.

The most interesting part of that statement? “We do not make business decisions based on political issues.”

Please. In a video presentation to Starbucks’ 200,000 employees, of whom 40% are minorities, Schultz dismissed the notion that talking about race with customers is a bad idea. “I reject that. I reject that completely,” he said in the video address. “It’s an emotional issue. But it is so vitally important to the country.”

The “country” apparently disagrees. As The New York Times reports, the campaign “unleashed widespread vitriol and derision” so intense, Corey duBrowa, Starbucks’ senior vice president for global communications, felt the need to temporarily delete his Twitter account. “I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity,” he wrote. “I got overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion, and I reacted.”

Isn’t a discussion exactly what Starbucks ostensibly wants?

No doubt Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of “PBS NewsHour,” voiced what is undoubtedly the most widespread emotional reason for the animosity. “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,” she tweeted.

Columnist Joe Berkowitz relayed his own firsthand account of the campaign’s brainless impracticality. “When it’s my turn, I order a small coffee and glance at all the people on line behind me,” he writes. “It’s so many people – at least enough to fill a jury box. If the barista and I are to have an effective meditation on identity politics, all of these people are going to be made to wait. It’s the first time that the wild impracticality of this campaign, as I understand it, fully dawns on me. Could Schultz really expect people on line to patiently wait while the barista and I – and the rest of America, by extension – make inroads toward unity?”

You betcha. “Where others see costs, risks, excuses and hopelessness, we see and create pathways of opportunity,” Schultz insisted last Wednesday at a meeting in Seattle. “That is the role and responsibility of a for-profit, public company.”

That pathway places quite a burden on the company’s workforce. An internal memo reveals that employees have to watch Schultz’s video, print two copies of the USA Today insert, putting one on the counter sign and the other on the store’s bulletin board, pass out Race Together stickers to customers, wear one on one’s apron, and write “Race Together” or “Together” on coffee cups – all as a prelude to engaging in a conversation to “foster empathy and a common understanding” in a country that faces “ongoing racial tension.” Aside from “Race Together,” the rest of this nonsense will continue.

And you know what real tension is? Standing in an early morning, glacial-paced line for an overpriced cup of joe, wondering if you’ll make it to work on time because customers and baristas who make around $9.50 an hour are engaged in a effort to “solve” America’s race problems.

Ironically most of those conversations, if they take place at all, will be at Starbucks locations far away from the racial strife Schultz is determined to address. That’s because Starbucks has no stores in many cities with majority black populations. Those cities include Highland Park, Michigan; East St. Louis, Illinois; Gary, Indiana; Selma, Alabama – and, oh yeah, Ferguson, Missouri.

Perhaps the oh-so-high-minded Schultz should consider walking the walk – before he requires his employees to talk the talk. In the meantime, the bet here is the overwhelming majority of Starbucks customers will embrace this bit of dialogue: “Gimme my coffee, take my money – and keep your opinions about race to yourself.”

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