Starbucks offers a shot of race with every cappuccino

Howard Schultz gets lampooned for trying to start discussions of race at his stores

Starbucks is now offering a conversation about race along with the coffee drinks. Some people think this is a noble, commendable idea. Even more folks seem to think it’s about the dumbest move any business has come up with in a long time. Whatever the judgment may be, it is no surprise that the idea for this was born at a company based in the predominantly white, earnestly liberal, coolly polite city of Seattle.

In Seattle, baristas might just get away with chatting up their customers about hot button racial issues. Just about everyone will be on the same page, politically, and any customer who does not feel like talking will simply mumble an apology and hide behind her iPad. I can’t imagine things going so calmly in Texas or Alabama, though. Or Boston or Los Angeles, for that matter. Sooner or later, tempers will flare, voices will be raised, somebody will scream that this force-fed political correctness is part of a commie-socialist plot to denigrate white, Christian America and soon the cappuccinos and macchiatos will be flying in all directions.

However well or badly this goes, one guy thinks it’s worth the risk: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — one of the most earnest and liberal gazillionaires in the USA. Schultz has been getting lampooned and harshly criticized for asking his army of employees to write “Race Together” on coffee cups and then engage in race talk with the people who wander into his ubiquitous caffeine emporiums. Undeterred by the negative reception to his idea, he told CNN Money, “It’s not going to solve racism, but I do believe it is the right thing to do at this time.”

After holding a series of forums with employees in which participants explored race relations, Schultz came to believe his customers should be brought in on the conversation. And, since he is the boss, he could tell everyone who works for him to simply make it happen.

Apparently, not everyone got the message. On Wednesday, during a discussion of the Starbucks race initiative on KPCC, the Pasadena-based affiliate of National Public Radio, a young woman called in to offer her perspective. She identified herself as a Starbucks employee and said she thought talking race was a fine idea, but no one at work had told her anything about it. Another Starbucks barista called in to say he was keen to join the effort, but indicated there had been no training to help employees navigate the delicate terrain of race. They are being left on their own to choose when and how to strike up conversations, he said.

It sounds as if there is not much of an actual design to this scheme other than to write on the cups and see what happens. Second-guessing Howard Schultz is somewhat presumptuous; he was genius enough, after all, to turn one little coffee shop with a mermaid sign into an international business empire. Still, how much useful discussion about race can go on between a barista and a customer before the next person in line begins to get testy about having to wait to order his Tiramisu Latte? Is the time it takes to whip up a frappuccino long enough to go deep into the heart of an issue that has plagued America since Columbus landed and made slaves of the natives?

Maybe Schultz will be proved right and some useful national discussion will emerge from this well meant, but seemingly awkward, effort. Nevertheless, I can’t help but imagine a typical discussion going something like this:

Customer: “I’d like a double short Americano with room.”

Barista: “I wrote ‘Race Together’ on your cup. Is that cool?”

Customer: “Totally. Like Ferguson. That really sucks.”

Barista: “It really does suck.”

Customer: “And slavery. That was so lame.”

Barista: Yeah, really lame… So, do you want a muffin or anything?”

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