A Starbucks Hater Orders a Venti

04/14/2015 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

I don't care for Starbucks.

I don't like paying $4 for a $2 product. I don't consider waiting in a long line a "shared cultural experience." I don't like focus-group-tested nonsense words for small, medium and large. I don't even like coffee.

But I am sorry and saddened to see what happened when Starbucks management dared to provoke a conversation about race in America today.

In case you somehow missed it, Starbucks baristas recently began writing "RaceTogether" on the company's recyclable coffee cups as a prompt for dialogue around race and diversity. Starbucks management's stated intention was to stimulate discussion... and stimulate they did.

Across newspaper pages, office water coolers, and the Internet, the public's reaction to the campaign was immediate and fiercely negative. Americans, it seemed, took their coffee with sugar and served up with as little moralizing as possible. "Starbucks to Solve Racism By Writing Stuff On Cups," one mocking headline read. A Starbucks senior executive deactivated his Twitter account, saying later he "felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity."

A week later, Starbucks ended the campaign, with CEO Howard Schultz stating it had always been slated as a one week effort. Speculation abounded, though, that the company had cut its losses when the backlash became too onerous.

Bloodless corporate boardrooms across the country no doubt took heed. Keep clear of controversy! There's no percentage in the tough topics. Stick to puppies and little league for your activism, lest the Twitter mob come for your head next.

I don't get it. Sure, the icebreaker Starbucks tried to use was hokey and goofy, but that doesn't fully explain the furor of our collective reaction. Why do we find the simple act of talking about race so threatening when something is vastly, vitally wrong with our country?

Just a few observations: The unemployment rate for black recent college graduates is roughly double that of recent college grads overall, according to a report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank that studies income inequality. Black and Hispanic borrowers pay higher interest rates on subprime mortgages than white with similar credit scores, according to research from the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group. And considerable evidence exists of a so-called "bamboo ceiling," the tendency for Asian-Americans to gain employment as rank-and-file workers but fail to advance into upper management as they accrue tenure.

All of those facts, and many more, are topics we ought to be talking about more readily. There is plenty of room for mealy, chewy, robust debate about race in America today: where we've been, where we are, where we're going. Why wait until another unarmed black teenager is shot before we break the silence?

Here is the sad part: l'affair Starbucks and other episodes like it contribute mightily to the third ratification of race in America. When the backlash is this furious over an innocent if slightly ham-handed awareness campaign, we learn to clam up if the topic is broached. We can't even have a conversation about race without it also being A Conversation About Race.

A few days after Starbucks ended "RaceTogether", I dropped in at one downtown Hartford location for the first time in months. I ordered a tall hot chocolate with whipped cream just before closing time, took a deep breath, and asked my server what he thought of the campaign and the public's furious response. Yes, it was a little forced, strange and uncomfortable to engage a total stranger on race. But if the alternative was to remain silent, it wasn't so bad.