Starbucks Races to the Bottom
Giving up coffee for Lent has turned out to be more of a struggle than I expected, but Starbucks Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz has given me another reason to stick with it: It means that none of his employees will try to engage me in a conversation about racial inequality. Or, even worse, about "the need for compassion, the need for empathy, the need for love towards others." That's the suggestion Schultz is urging on the poor clerks at Starbucks counters this week. And I thought I was grumpy not getting a cup.
The initiative hasn't gone over well. "I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity," said one Starbucks exec about the online reaction. Hey, guys, you're the ones who wanted a conversation. And it's not like you should've been surprised. A couple of years ago, country singer Brad Paisley tried to start a conversation about race with a song that mentioned Starbucks in its first line. It didn't go well for him either.
But Schultz still has some defenders. Juan Williams, the Fox News host, said that the critics "prefer mocking the first step to taking the risky journey." The country's "history of racial pain and progress stands in defiance of the cynics who want to tell people to shut up," he added.
I wouldn't tell Schultz or anyone in his employ -- and, as a side note, when did we decide that we're going to call everyone who works a coffee machine a "barista"? -- to shut up. I would suggest, though, that Schultz think a bit more before telling his employees to start these conversations. That seems unfair to the employees, who usually seem pretty busy when I go in. It's discourteous, as well, to customers who came to the counter for something else entirely. Some of them might also have jobs to get back to.
And that's to say nothing of the many ways the conversations could go disastrously awry. ("Do you want whipped cream with that? Also, are you Italian? You look Italian, and there's something I've always wondered about Italians … Wait, what are all these protesters doing here?")
Attorney General Eric Holder, who said in 2009 that America was a "nation of cowards" who refused to talk about race, doubtless sees the negative reaction to Schultz's proposed conversation as vindication for his view. One reason for the skepticism, though, is that to some of us it seems as though Americans talk about race all the time. We have talked about race and law enforcement seemingly nonstop for months. We talk about racial diversity and the Oscars. We even talk about the racial background of Santa Claus.
And we racialize subjects that don't involve race at all. Just this week, Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, suggested that Republicans had made Loretta Lynch, Obama's nominee to be Holder's successor, "sit in the back of the bus" by making her wait to get confirmed. He knows perfectly well that Republicans are delaying a vote to get leverage on another bill, not because she's black.
Schultz may be an excellent businessman, but he seems to have a lot of bad ideas. In 2013, he decided that his stores should host a petition drive to get Congress to pass a "bipartisan and comprehensive long-term budget deal." The theory seems to have been that neither Republicans nor Democrats were aware that many coffee drinkers like things that sound good as long as they're kept vague. Or maybe Schultz has more specific ideas, but knows that being more candid would seriously offend some of his customers. It seems like only a matter of time before Starbucks is encouraging us to do something ineffectual to promote peace in the Middle East.
Mercifully, it doesn't look like the rest of corporate America is tempted to start "conversations" of their own. Michelle King, senior director of global public relations at Dunkin' Brands, tells me, "While we cannot comment on Starbucks' recent campaign, I can tell you that we have no plans to implement a similar program at Dunkin' Donuts."
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