Thursday, March 26, 2015

Starbucks’ nice try

THE NATION’S fractious racial climate has always invited the good intentions of those who’d try to improve that climate, by just about any means necessary. Each of us in our own lives has had that fumbling but earnest opportunity to step outside his or her own (dis)comfort zone and take a stand for justice, equality ... or just having a conversation.

Which makes the virulent reaction of Starbucks’ “Race Together” campaign both hard and easy to understand. On March 15 (the Ides of March, FWIW), the Seattle coffee titan launched the campaign, an effort to enlist the company’s baristas in provoking genial repartee about race and ethnicity among the customers at the thousands of Starbucks coffee shops across the country. The baristas (as if they don’t have enough to do already) were also asked to write “Race Together” on Starbucks cups.

“Baristas in cities where the forums were held said they wanted to do something tangible to encourage greater understanding, empathy and compassion toward one another,” said a post on the Starbucks website. “Given their willingness to discuss race relations, many partners wanted to begin conversations with their customers too.”

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Despite its appearing to come from a real place, the Starbucks overture failed in the days that followed. Customers weren’t having it; social media went batshit crazy with snarky reactions to the campaign — reactions that said more about the people writing them than the people they were writing about.

At Talking Points Memo, Sniffit commented: “This should go over swimmingly. Would you like that black or should I leave a little room at the top for privilege?”

 Also at TPM, just_observing observed: “I really don't want to have a sound bite discussion of an important issue in a retail checkout line. In fact, let me go one further: please quit asking me what I'm doing this weekend or five questions about how my day is. I came for coffee, give me the coffee. You want to improve things, give you…

Larry Wilmore, host of “The Nightly Show” on Comedy Central, had his own take: “You're lookin’ to make progress, Starbucks? How about you stop selling CDs in 2015?”

Starbucks media machinery tried its best to spin it the right way. ““Leading change isn’t an easy thing to accomplish," spokeswoman Laurel Harper told The New York Times. But no: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz formally pulled the plug on the project on Sunday, March 22.

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ADMITTEDLY, IT’S a serious stretch to expect people to weigh in in a meaningful way about race relations before they’ve had their first caffeine jolt of the day. Most of us don’t know our own names before that first blissful cup. But Starbucks tried its best to move the needle on this matter, the nation’s eternal blind spot, in a way that maybe its customers could get behind, if only for a moment.

God knows Starbucks (2014 market cap $71.2 billion) doesn’t need any more publicity, so the idea of doing this as a stunt or a gimmick — as if Starbucks was a startup company— doesn’t really make sense. The campaign may have been ham-fisted, but it was apparently sincere.

In this hyperpartisan time, though, reactions like the ones SBUX attracted shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. It’s an indicator of just how broken and angry we’ve become about even talking about race in this country. Even the valiant of misguided effort is subject to attack; good intentions are the work of bad actors.

The next time Starbucks tries to push the envelope on cultivating a conversation on what’s still the country’s most combustible topic, or any other big concern, maybe Schultz will come up with a better forum than a checkout line for people waiting on their morning defibrillator cappuccinos.

The topic of race relations in our raging nation deserves that forum. But a seemingly principled effort to inspire such a conversation deserves better than vilification.

Unless, of course, we’re willing to talk about race relations on our own ...

Image credits: RaceTogether cup: via Starbucks logo: © 2015 Starbucks Corporation. Wilmore: © 2015 Comedy Central. Tweets are the property of their respective creators.

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