Racial Trouble on Starbucks Island

By Heather Wilhelm Published on March 19, 2015

This week, Starbucks Coffee Company announced its “Race Together” initiative, which encourages employees to strike up conversations with customers about race relations in America. Yes, you read that right. Baristas will be encouraged to write “Race Together” on cups, offering a gentle psychological nudge and suggesting it’s a good idea to discuss hot-button and largely misunderstood issues with complete strangers who are also armed with piping hot beverages.

Also, is it just me, or has that guy with the laptop at the prime corner table been locked in the same hunched-over position with his stuff sprawled all over for the past three days? Why isn’t he at a smaller table? Are those cobwebs in his beard? Wait. Is he even ALIVE? Welcome to Starbucks, friends. Let’s go talk to that guy about race. Maybe then he’ll actually leave.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is convinced that “we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society — one conversation at a time.” If Starbucks employees can instruct just one customer about “the need for love towards others,” Schultz declares in a company-wide video, they can make a “significant difference as we go forward.” This lecturing will also likely make a significant negative difference in the old barista tip jar, but such is the price of fake social justice.

The “Race Together” campaign, Fortune magazine reports, “follows several months of consultations with employees that started in December, in part as a result of protests that roiled several U.S. cities after grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the killings of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., near St. Louis, and 43-year-old Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.”

Wow! I can only imagine the conversations unfolding at the Ferguson Starbucks, or at the local Starbucks in Tompkinsville, Staten Island, where Eric Garner died. Even more powerful must be the earnest discussions at the Starbucks in Harrison, Arkansas, which is the home of the largest active Ku Klux Klan organization in America.

You can probably see where I’m going. There isn’t a Starbucks in Ferguson, of course. There’s no Starbucks in the late Eric Garner’s neighborhood either. Members of the Harrison-area Klan, meanwhile, would have to gather up their remaining teeth, sell them for gas money, and schlep 33 miles to touristy Branson, Missouri or 91 miles to yuppie-filled Bentonville in order immerse themselves in the “Race Together” experience. Also, just between you and me, after the trip, I don’t think they’d have the disposable income for a $32 cup of Blonde Roast.

“Race Together,” in other words, is a rather absurd, vastly out-of-touch idea. It’s kind of like Obama’s infamous “Beer Summit,” but without the fun — which is bad, because the “Beer Summit” didn’t have any fun of any kind.

Thankfully, since Starbucks baristas want your money more than they want lots of awkward, pointless conversations, “Race Together” will likely soon fade into oblivion, imitating the strictly seasonal and highly controversial Pumpkin Spice Latte. However, while it’s around, “Race Together” offers a pretty clear picture of America’s racial dysfunction, especially among the upper-middle classes. It also shows that talking simply for the sake of talking — call it the American therapy cult — often gets people into trouble.

This was brilliantly illustrated on Tuesday night during a segment on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, when the gloriously named “Jay Smooth” discussed the “Race Together” campaign with Nancy Giles, a CBS reporter. Giles, who is African American, poked fun of the light-skinned Mr. Smooth for talking like he was black (in a “brotha way”) and liking rap music.

“There would be some people that feel like you co-opted something like that,” she said. “I mean, it’s really interesting.”

“It’s also interesting,” Smooth replied, not batting an eye, “because I’m actually black, but you assumed otherwise. And this is the sort of awkwardness that we can look forward to at Starbucks across America.” Chris Hayes, in the background, began to cackle; Ms. Giles rolled right on, narrative undeterred, to bemoan that people often accuse her of “talking white.”

What are we to make of this silliness? Certainly there are serious racial problems in America. But is all this upper-middle-class agonizing over peripheral topics — endless discussion about “co-opting” culture and “appropriating” language and struggling to determine who has what “privilege” when and where — really helping? Or is it creating more problems than it solves?

I tend to believe it’s the latter. It’s easy to talk about “racism” in a broad therapeutic sense. It’s a lot harder to actually come up with solutions to real-world problems: disparities in education, family structure, opportunity, and more. Unfortunately, that’s where we often disagree, not just on solutions, but on what our root problems really are. These are questions that go far beyond racism. The answers don’t usually fit on a coffee cup.


Note: This column has been corrected to more accurately reflect Starbuck locations closer to the towns of Ferguson and Harrison.


Originally published at Real Clear Politics.

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