Tackling race by the cup


Employees on the front lines of the service economy are compelled to say a lot of things to customers at corporate behest, whether it’s “Would you like to supersize that?” or by responding to “Thank you” with the unnatural “My pleasure.”

As of Sunday, baristas at Starbucks will no longer have to worry about following up an order for a vente caramel flan latte with a discussion on racism in America, a topic whose solution has eluded the country’s greatest minds. It was Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s idea for his staff to open up a national discussion on racism by writing #RaceTogether on customers’ cups. It took just one week for the initiative to sink under the weight of criticism and satire, making it only slightly less well received than New Coke.

Racism is America’s enduring shame, but there was something awfully gimmicky about the #RaceTogether initiative. Corporations are right to try to do good, but sometimes these efforts seem to be focused more on increasing the bottom line than repairing the world. On top of that, the effort to reduce a nation’s struggle with race to a pithy hashtag just seemed naive.

Starbucks has done phenomenally well, and Schultz has used the chain’s notoriety and ubiquity in a series of activist political and social initiatives. In 2011, he led 100 corporate executives in pledging to halt campaign contributions until politicians “stop the partisan gridlock in Washington, D.C.” In 2013, he urged customers to support a petition calling for an end to the government shutdown then underway. The same year, the chain advised customers that they were no longer welcome to bring their guns when they stop in for a coffee.

In the future, Schultz said in a company memo, Starbucks will continue hosting events on racism, hiring 16- to 24-year-olds who aren’t in school or employed, and “expanding our store footprint in urban communities across the country.” These actions are likely to do more to help close the economic divide in this country than by seeking to engage and influence customers who just want a jolt of caffeine.

Besides, aren’t the lines at Starbucks long enough?

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