Like many Americans, I’ve been known to indulge in the guilty pleasure of walking to my neighborhood Starbucks for a jolt of Joe to start my day. If Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has his way, you might have something more to feel guilty about other than having just spent $4 on that fancy Frappuccino.
Starting Friday, Starbucks is teaming up with USA Today to launch a new initiative designed to stimulate discussions of racial inequality in America called “Race Together: Conversation has the Power to Change Hearts and Minds.” Of his new program, Schultz observes: “Each story, each voice offered insight into the divisive role unconscious bias plays in our society and the role empathy can play to bridge those divides.” Well said, Mr. Schultz. But don’t ruin my Starbucks experience by encouraging your baristas to engage me in a discussion on race as I’m trying to get to work on time in the morning.
I genuinely admire Schultz for what he’s trying to do: engage in a meaningful discussion on race that our supposed first post-racial president has failed at miserably. Who can forget Attorney General Eric Holder telling us within the first month of the Obama administration that we as Americans have been cowards on matters of race? President Obama waded in shortly thereafter to comment that the Cambridge Police Department had acted stupidly in arresting Henry Louis Gates, the renowned Harvard scholar.
From the Jena 6 to Trayvon Martin to Selma and Ferguson, Americans have been engaged in serious discussions on race relations for several years now. Sadly, much of the dialogue has polarized the views of our fellow citizens on matters of race rather than bringing us together. From my standpoint, I believe race relations in America now are as tense as I’ve ever seen them in my adult life.
And yet, the idea that we’re supposed to take a cup of Starbucks coffee with a #RaceTogether on the side next to our name and engage the barista on matters of race is a terrible idea. For many, walking into Starbucks is a social experience, sitting with friends, surfing the Internet, finding a moment of quiet reflection. One can only imagine what might happen if the patron in front of you offers an opinion about Michael Brown that the barista might not agree with. All hell could break loose.
Moreover, many customers happily walk into their neighborhood Starbucks each day—pleased with themselves that their barista already knows their name and calls out the drink order before they arrive to the cash register. This simple act of intimacy and familiarity could go right down the drain if the #RaceTogether discussion goes wrong one day—forever ruining a modest and unassuming act of kindness.
Don’t get me wrong: I applaud Schultz’s initiative to move us forward on healing racial animosities that have sadly been part of the American fabric since our creation hundreds of years ago. There is a reason Schultz is a keen entrepreneur—I was impressed when I met him last year at a reception in Washington, D.C., to promote the Starbucks College Achievement Plan that would provide thousands of baristas the opportunity to complete their bachelor’s degree online with full tuition reimbursement. There is no question that he is passionate about improving the lives of people he has never met—I saw and heard his sincerity as we spoke.
But just as I don’t want the government to facilitate discussions whether I like it or not, the same applies to this idea that Starbucks employees should be forcing their customers to do the same when all they wanted was a cup of coffee and a break from the routine of their day. Already, backlash to the initiative has been severe on social media. A simple search on Twitter, for example, returns many angry tweets from customers urging a boycott of the coffee chain as well as demands for changes to the senior management for daring to make discussions on race relations part of their Starbucks experience.
As Americans we have an obligation to eliminate prejudice due to race, ethnicity, gender, or any other discriminatory intent. I believe most prejudice is predicated upon a lack of understanding of someone who looks or acts differently than themselves. Dialogue is an important tool in education—let’s just keep it to our family, friends, and loved ones, and not in the line at Starbucks. I believe Schultz’s well-intended program to facilitate dialogue on race will only lead to more acrimony—a program that needs to be scrapped before it starts on Friday.