Starbucks is launching an initiative that CEO Howard Schultz thinks will be 'catalytic' for race relations in this country. Spoiler alert: it won't.
Schultz thinks we need to have more discussions about race. So he's instructing his baristas to begin talking to their customers about it. I can almost picture the confused looks on all the baristas faces as they were being introduced to this new initiative called "Race Together.' Schultz thinks it will be "catalytic." Mkay.
Starbucks published a full page ad in the New York Times on Sunday - it was a blank black page with a tiny caption reading "Shall We Overcome?" in the the middle of it. There was another full page ad on Monday in USA Today, this time the image was of the recognizable boxes on the side of a Starbucks cup. Instead of saying decaf, nonfat, etc. -- the boxes, when read together, said, "When it comes to race, we are all human."
Beginning next week, some Starbucks employees may decide to write the words "race together" on coffee cups to encourage conversations about race.
Barista: Welcome to Starbucks! What can I get for you?
Customer: I'll have a grande coffee and a pumpkin muffin.
Barista: What is your opinion on the current status of race relations in America?
Customer: I haven't even had a cup of coffee yet.
Barista: I know. I don't know why they're making me do this. I hate my job.
To be fair, no one is making anyone do anything. Starting this Friday, USA Today -- which Fortune magazine notes has a daily print circulation of almost two million and is a partner of Starbucks in this initiative -- will have the first of a series of inserts about race relations. Starbucks will stock the insert for their customers. From a company statement released Monday, "Race Together is not a solution, Schultz acknowledged, '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 will be interesting to see what these inserts include, but the barista initiative just seems... awkward? And who is going to be having the discussion with you? The person who is in charge of making you your five dollar coffee? Shultz says in a video message on the company's website,
There were some people that said, 'Howard, this is not a subject we should touch. This is not for you. This is not for a company. This is for someone else.' I reject that. I reject that completely because we can't leave that for someone else."
He goes on to say he believes his company can do something that will be "catalytic" for the country. He says he thinks the USA Today insert can be a "primary vehicle" to get people to understand that we need "a new level of sensitivity and understanding around these issues."
Excuse me, what?
Schultz' idea may be well-intentioned, but actually believing two words written on a cup of expensive coffee can undo any of the problems we have with race relations in this country is confusing at best. Sure, just tell your baristas to write two words on a cup of coffee that only a small percentage of the population can afford to begin with, and that will definitely be "catalytic." I'm not even sure how to process this.
Schultz is a progressive CEO in other respects, but this initiative is tone-deaf at best. Has Schultz ever engaged another human being who doesn't share his opinions in a conversation about race? I have. It doesn't end well. Suggesting his baristas do it daily is a pretty strange directive.
(photo: Getty Images)