Fortune reports on what might just be the worst entry in the long history of bad corporate ideas, as the Starbucks coffee chain announces a “race relations initiative” that will include baristas hassling customers about racism:
Starbucks published a full page ad in the New York Times on Sunday — a stark, black, page with a tiny caption “Shall We Overcome?” in the middle, and the words “RaceTogether” with the company logo, on the bottom right. The ad, along with a similar one on Monday in USA Today, is part of an initiative launched this week by the coffee store chain to stimulate conversation and debate about the race in America by getting employees to engage with customers about the perennially hot button subject.
Beginning on Monday, Starbucks baristas will have the option as they serve customers to hand cups on which they’ve handwritten the words “Race Together” and start a discussion about race. This Friday, each copy of USA Today— which has a daily print circulation of almost 2 million and is a partner of Starbucks in this initiative — will have the first of a series of insert with information about race relations, including a variety of perspectives on race. Starbucks coffee shops will also stock the insert.
In a video addressing Starbucks’ nearly 200,000 workers, 40% of whom are members of a racial minority, [Starbucks CEO Howard] Schultz dismissed the notion that race was too hot a topic business-wise for Starbucks to tackle.
“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,” he continued, pointing to that the United States is “so much better” than what the current state of race relations portray it to be.
There will be no escape from politics in America, good citizens. Your consciousness will be raised every time you walk into a room, unwrap a package, engage any form of communications device, or even accept a cup of coffee. Enjoy your evening’s rest while you can, until left-wingers figure out a way to beam political messages into your dreams.
This sounds like a strategy to beat Starbucks’ stock into the dirt; maybe the hidden agenda is to drive customers away so they can shut down a few of the stores they threw up in their over-expansion frenzy and write off the losses. Even the act of handing customers a cup with race messages hand-written on them is going to make people feel uncomfortable, which is presumably the point of the exercise. It would be bad enough if these slogans were pre-printed on the containers, but hand-writing them turns it into a personal assault from the barista upon the customer – he or she is calling you out.
If the baristas begin verbally hassling customers in an effort to “start a discussion on race” with people who just want a cup of coffee and a danish to get their busy day started, this initiative will end up putting a thousand videos on YouTube, few of them flattering to Starbucks. Some of the customers are going to be more than merely annoyed by ambush confrontations over this “emotional issue.”
The Fortune article goes on to say that Starbucks hatched this idea following “several months of consultations with employees that started in December, in part as a result of protests that roiled several U.S. cities after grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the killings of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., near St. Louis, and 43-year-old Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.”
Does that mean the “conversations on race” they’ll be serving up with chai lattes will include explaining how that grand jury decision in Ferguson was entirely correct, as per every analysis up to and including Eric Holder’s Justice Department? Will they be sparking up conversations with people wearing “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot?” T-shirts to chastise them for spreading a deliberate falsehood manufactured by race-baiting opportunists?
It won’t take long before Starbucks’ remaining customer base begins complaining that barista-initiated race conversations are slanted one way or the other. It won’t be long before the first customer says he thinks there’s been great progress overall in race relations, and an angry barista snaps at him… or a customer snaps and treats the entire cafe to an angry harangue, which might just escalate into a fight… or someone stares at the hand-written coffee cup and asks the cafe staff, in a tone of barely-controlled rage, “Are you calling me a racist?” And they probably won’t get through the first week of this dopey idea before irate customers begin yelling at the baristas to can the grad-school sociology lectures and just pour the damn coffee already.
Fortune mentions some of the other political squabbles Starbucks has gotten caught up in, including the notorious 2013 open letter to gun owners asking them not to bring their weapons into the store, $5 bracelets sold to raise money for “U.S. job creation,” and a pledge to hire 10,000 veterans and their spouses over five years. Whatever one thinks of those initiatives – I guess President Obama didn’t share that “no such thing as shovel-ready jobs” lesson he forced the rest of us to pay for with Starbucks management – they’re quiet. They didn’t make customers feel uncomfortable, aside from perhaps a few baristas who got carried away upselling those “job creation bracelets.”
Race relations, on the other hand, is an inherently aggressive topic. It’s rarely fodder for brief, upbeat discussions. One of the important lessons to learn from the Ferguson mess is that race relations have been politicized in the worst possible way – animosities are deliberately stoked by dishonest operators who profit financially and politically from unrest.
Good people of every ethnic background who aren’t racist in the slightest nevertheless feel nervous and defensive about the issue. Even if the barista and a particular customer see eye-to-eye on the issue, there’s a good chance other customers within earshot will not. Organized pressure groups will realize hanging around at Starbucks is a great way to cause a camera-ready scene… and if management finds their behavior objectionable, they’ll be able to say, with considerable justification, that they just came to participate in the big racial discussion the corporation claims it’s eager to host.
As for the average Joe who just wants his cup of expensive joe, he’ll either slump his shoulders and start working up some prepared comments he can mumble to get the barista off his back… or he’ll get his coffee from a company that doesn’t treat him like a lab rat in a consciousness-raising experiment. Perhaps some quick-thinking restaurant chains will begin advertising themselves as peaceful politics-free zones where people can enjoy meals and beverages without being proselytized from every angle.