Siva Vaidhyanathan,  March 18, 2015

Starbucks’s Race to the Center of Civic Life

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The next time you order one of those faux-Italian-named sweetened coffee drinks at a Starbucks store, you are likely to receive a cup with the hash-tagged words “Race Together” written on it, just above your misspelled name. If you ask the Starbucks employee what it’s about, she or he will tell you that it’s part of a new corporate initiative to inspire customers to discuss racial issues with employees and among themselves.

Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz is no doubt sincere about his belief in Starbucks as a site and his employees as facilitators of measured deliberation about the legacies of 400 years of slavery, segregation, violence, and migration. But his commitment rests on the naïve arrogance of privilege.

The #RaceTogether project can go one of several ways. Most likely, the effort will fade away and spark no change at all. Employees will write on cups for a few weeks. And patrons will steadily ignore the writing, just like they ignore so many other demands on their attention. After all, Americans don’t ignore racial disparities and injustices in their daily lives out of a lack of invitation or opportunities to discuss them. Our Facebook feeds and news channels are full of invitations for discussion. And Thanksgiving dinners with distant relatives offer all-too-many opportunities for Americans to explain just what they think about other races.

It is less likely, but still possible, that this effort will spark a handful of uncomfortable moments in which employees already rushed through their stressful work hours and trying to satisfy the complex orders of surly customers are forced to deal with a racist tirade, or a heavy dissertation on the crushing personal effects of racism on a customer. Less likely still, this experiment could seed a rich, respectful, and historically nuanced conversation right there in the glow of the green mermaid logo. This new caffeine-fueled enlightenment could drive local communities toward better understanding and mutual respect. That’s certainly what Schultz is counting on.

“What can we do to create more empathy, more compassion, more understanding?,” Shultz asked his employees this week (the company calls them “partners” to mask the nature of the labor-management relationship). “Perhaps we could do something that could be catalytic for the country.”

Schultz said that the idea came from employees themselves after he held open forums with them in cities around the country in the wake of recent protests over police violence against African Americans. And he assured employees that they are not required to participate in the effort. “Some of you may be uncomfortable doing this, and if you are, you have no mandate from me to do it. Just bow out. You don’t have to do it.”

In many forums over the years, including his own books (offered for sale at many Starbucks stores), Schultz has loudly asserted that Starbucks is a special company, one that expresses and works toward making the world a better place. This hardcore sense of corporate social responsibility is central to Starbucks’ mission and, Shultz has explained many times, a core element in the success of the company.

So if such projects and stances are so central to the prospects of the company, how can an employee consider opting out without undermining the goals of the company? When the leader of a company puts his passion and voice behind a project, it’s difficult for an employee who makes about $10 an hour to assume that it is purely voluntary, that there would not be some hidden price to pay for opting out. Likewise, if an employee opts in, what protections would she have if she says something indelicate, or if a customer misinterprets a well-meaning remark? Starbucks employees are not priests or social workers; they have not been trained to handle difficult emotional moments. If a racial conversation goes terribly badly, who will shoulder the blame? Probably not the customer.

All over the United States, teachers, clergy, police officers, and community activists have always fostered carefully moderated conversations about race. In communities large and small, these conversations have had modest but largely local effects. Even after years of experience and deep training in facilitating such discussions, those who run them don’t necessarily find them easy or comfortable. In fact, the less comfortable the discussions are, the more good they might do.

Schultz has expressed no recognition of these longstanding efforts and conversations that hard-working professionals have been pursuing through the public sector and houses of worship. He seems to think that Starbucks should fill some vacuum he perceives in American public life. In doing so, he overestimates the centrality of a corporate chain of overpriced coffee shops to that civic experience.

It’s clear that America needs not only a richer, more sensitive, and more historically informed conversation than Starbucks could ever hope to inspire. America also needs a conversation about the proper role of corporations in public life. Perhaps “Race Together” will spark the latter, if not the former.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is the Robertson Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of The Googlization of Everything—and Why We Should Worry.

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