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That Escalated Quickly: Starbucks' Race Together Initiative Ends

"The only thing I like integrated is my coffee." -- Malcolm X
A good cup of coffee can work miracles. It makes us more alert, gets the day started off on the right foot, and can help tired and cranky people get their heads together long enough to have a sustained, rational conversation. Starbucks probably had this in mind when it started its Race Together initiative in its stores. Barely a week later, they announced that amid a firestorm of criticism and snark, they were suspending the campaign. There are some things, after all, that are too big to be solved by a single cup of coffee. The United States' history when it comes to all things race-related is long, complicated, and thorny under the best of circumstances. Relationships and conversations between white and non-white people have been characterized by benign neglect, mutual distrust, hatred, misunderstanding, and -- especially -- failure to communicate. Decades worth of studies come to the same dismal conclusion: nothing changes, because generally, we're not even talking to each other. Race Together was undertaken to change that unfortunate history of silence by starting a conversation. A collaboration between Starbucks and USA Today, it launched on March 16. Social media exploded in derision, Alex Jones' Infowars cohorts lost their collective heads, and media left, right, and center were left running bemused and befuddled segments on how it had all gone so wrong. By March 22, the campaign, such as it was, was discontinued. I've occasionally been tough on Starbucks in this space. And the company has earned some of its criticism in this instance. Yes, the Race Together/#racetogether initiative was hamfisted, ill-conceived, and likely doomed from the start. And asking a stressed barista to talk to a cranky stockbroker about Cornel West, or the collected works of bell hooks, or about Eric Garner is a bridge too far. But I'm going to pause here to dissent from the firestorm of criticism the company has faced in the last week. Although the company's effort fell short in this case, I'm not ready to completely write off Race Together. For one thing, the conversation on race -- the longer, more complicated, and invariably more messy one -- is long overdue. I'm glad to see a company -- especially one that's generally tried to do right by its employees and customers -- make the attempt. And I'm also glad to see several of the responses to Starbucks begin to highlight the shortcomings in the conversations we are, and are not, having on the subject. Ironically, the company may yet see the beginnings of the conversation it attempted to start.

Further Reading:

Starbucks: "What ‘Race Together’ Means for Starbucks Partners and Customers" USA Today: "Race Together" NPR: "Starbucks' 'Race Together' Campaign Begins" Eater: "Starbucks Nixes Its Terrible 'Race Together' Cup-Writing Campaign" The New Yorker: In an essay recently published by Said Sayarfiezadeh in The New Yorker ("The Name on My Coffee Cup"), the writer explains how something as simple as a name -- his name, incorrectly spelled on his coffee cup more often than not -- points up how far we have to go yet.