Saturday, March 21, 2015

Starbucks' Bold, Brave Experiment in Futility

I'll give Howard Schultz an E for effort. His latest attempt at having a "discussion" about race is about as ballsy a move as any CEO has made in this country quite possibly ever. I wish more CEOs would have the courage to follow suit. Maybe if more companies broached the subject, we could inch ever so closer toward reconciling America's original sin: racism.

But while it was bold, brave, daring - pick an adjective - in the end it won't solve a bloody thing. Indeed, given the ethnic and racial makeup of the typical Starbucks customer, it has the very real possibility of blowing up in Schultz's face. I can just see it now: white guy coming in to get his iced coffee, running a bit late for work, and the barista standing behind the counter says something like, "How do you feel about race?" Right about that moment the barista gets informed by said white man that his brother is a cop and he's sick and tired of hearing about race. "You don't want to get shot, don't break the law. How's that?" Franklin Graham couldn't have said it any better.

I'll bet the ranch that those scenarios will play out in droves all across the country. White people getting indignant about being asked about race by a barista making slightly more than minimum wage. For the last six years all they've heard about is race and now they can't even get a friggin' cup of coffee without getting an earful.

This goes down as one of those wonderful, but ultimately, self-defeating moments when that age-old maxim "no good deed goes unpunished" comes front and center. Yes, America still has a race problem. Systemic racism is alive and well and appears to be ratcheting up. The recent report released by the Department of Justice on the Ferguson police department makes that all too clear. And the majority of white people who simply don't want to acknowledge the painful reality, or, worse, conflate the loss of a "deserved" promotion or a child not getting into the college of their choice with a centuries-old problem, proves we have a long way to go before we finally resolve it. Hell, the fact that practically the entire Republican Party chose to skip the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma is a case study in point.

But having this discussion at a local Starbucks isn't the way to go about it. Pissing people off who are on their way to work makes about as much sense as a doctor trying to talk to his patient about the ills of smoking at a red light. In fact, it's worse. At least the doctor has an informed opinion. With all due respect to the local and, I'm sure, well-trained barista, your opinion about race is about as informed as that of the local delicatessen owner who's more concerned, and should be, with how much mustard to put on my ham and swiss sandwich.

This is a serious issue and no matter how well intentioned Schultz's motives may have been, it shouldn't be trivialized in such a manner. You want to have a real discussion about race, start with your friends and family. Write a damn letter to your elected official. Even better, vote for those candidates who best address your concerns. You want a frappuccino, go to a Starbucks.


Anonymous said...

Having lived my entire life, so far, in Seattle, the cradle of Starbucks, I can tell you that Howard is a decent person, who just wants to help others to be decent, too. I agree with you that this is not the way to go about it, and I feel for his employees, who will be dealing with the fall-out. Gotta give the guy credit for caring and trying though!

Prof. Walter Jameson said...


And yet, you continue to offer up nothing of substance on how a discussion of race should take place. Apparently, this is your remedy: Start (the discussion) with your friends and family; write a letter to one's elected officials; vote for candidates who address relevant concerns. Wonderful! Guess what? That's been going on forever among those who are so inclined. Do you have anything else? This is like those dreadful smoking PSAs in the NY metro area. They're absolutely awful. Of course, the people for whom they're intended - i.e., the smokers - couldn't care less about the underlying message and just laugh it all off. For almost everyone else, however, it's like fingernails on a blackboard, inducing profound annoyance and causing a quick search for the remote.

Attitudes on race begin with the individual. These attitudes are a reflection of one's inner heart and soul; they are a component of one's being. Can racists remove the toxicity that permeates their hearts and souls? Well, sometimes they can. Invariably it's an individual discovery, or epiphany, if you will. However, there are some who will never see the central flaw in their character that makes them less of a person. For these individuals no amount of national discussions on race is going to do the trick. If you truly believe otherwise, and think you may have an idea or two on how to reach *these* people, then that would certainly be a most interesting thing to read.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond.