Howard Schultz, the charismatic CEO of Starbucks, is no slouch when it comes to tackling social issues head on, from gun control and gay marriage to freedom of dress in its stores. But its latest initiative, Race Together, which encourages Starbucks baristas to discuss race with customers, is misguided and fraught with challenges that almost ensure that it will fail.
In the wake of the Ferguson riots and the rising concern over economic inequality (often divided along racial lines), race is a topic of grave importance to America's future. But given the complexity and sensitivity of the topic, it requires and deserves a deep and thoughtful examination, not a 'feel good' shot of racial caffeine delivered at your neighborhood coffee shop. That, if anything, trivializes the issue and reduces it to a publicity-friendly hashtag but little more.
Then there is the fact that Starbucks, of all places, is one of the most impractical forums for such discussions due to its business model.
The coffee chain thrives on volume and the rapid service of customers throughout the day. In an environment that hectic, is it reasonably possible for baristas to have anything but a superficial exchange with a customer without causing a massive logjam for every other customer in the store? It's not and that's also why Schultz's plan does a disservice to the topic of race. At best, it will lead to lip service by its baristas to satisfy their CEO's edict since anything else could lead to a big mess.
In addition, there is the very real possibility of acrimony and even violence resulting from the discussion of such hot-button topics. Starbucks' baristas and customers are racially diverse, which means that the opinions held by people on the topic of race will also invariably be diverse, and sometimes divisive. Race Together can therefore easily lead to unpredictable consequences and put the safety of both baristas and customers at risk.
Finally, as a consumer, I don't mind admitting that when I go to Starbucks for my morning coffee, I want nothing more or less. I certainly don't want a lecture on the heavy subject of race along with my already over-priced cup of joe -- even though I am a person of color.
I applaud Schultz for wanting to be socially conscious but that shouldn't include potentially forcing me to engage in a conversation of Starbucks' choosing. By doing so, the company is limiting my freedom of choice to discuss race when I want to, where I want to, and with whom I want to.
The point is that if Howard Schultz really wants to promote racial harmony, he should do so personally or find other ways to spread the message. Race Together feels too heavy handed, will be hard to execute, deeply uncomfortable for both employees and customers, and ultimately not productive.
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