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Problematic Publicity

News & Features | April 6, 2015

Starbucks is no stranger to the world of social and global issues. In 1994, the company adopted coffee and farmer equity practices to ensure the fair pay treatment of employees and encourage the use of environmentally friendly products. In 2003, Starbucks acquired Ethos Water Fund to promote clean water projects around the world. In 2012, an executive publicly announced the company’s support of marriage equality. Starbucks’ newest effort: “solving” hundreds of years’ worth of racial inequality and injustice in the United States.

A March 16 news item on Starbucks’s website revealed the company’s intention to begin discussions about race in the face of recent police brutality in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and other cities across the country. The post praised Howard Shultz, the chairman and CEO of Starbucks, for not “[remaining] a silent bystander” but instead “[starting] a discussion about race in America.” In a subsequent video and article on USA Today’s website, Shultz described his experience growing up in the projects of Brooklyn and learning “very good lessons about living among a lot of different people and getting along.” Shultz, a white man, states that he “did not see colors or any issues whatsoever with race as a young boy.” He denounced the atrocities against people of color that have occurred in this country and urged his audience to try to make a difference.

According to the initiative’s mission statement, penned by Shultz and Larry Kramer, president and publisher of USA Today, “Race Together is an initiative from Starbucks and USA Today to stimulate conversation, compassion, and action around race in America. Over the next year, we plan to do just that, using all of our strengths in publishing and in stores across America. Our companies share a philosophy: elevating diversity is the right thing to do but it is also a necessity.”

Race Together also aims to establish Starbucks locations in low-income areas. Zak Cheney-Rice of Mic.com reported that “since at least 1997, Starbucks has played an instrumental role in the gentrification of America’s cities.” Cheney-Rice also stated that the displacement of lower income families after gentrification “often occurs along racial lines and people of color get the short end of the stick.” Quartz, a digital news source geared toward global business issues, reported that Starbucks is “driving the increase in home values.” The fact that people’s lives may be uprooted as a result of this gentrification casts doubt upon Shultz’s foresight in this initiative, representing a real, perhaps unconsidered consequence of this initiative.

Shultz’s intentions, however, seem to be rooted in genuine compassion. “I think there’s an outcry of action that is required by the citizenry of the country. [We need to] reach and out and try to create a better level of understanding, compassion, and most importantly, empathy of what it means to put your feet in someone else’s shoes,” Shultz said.

He held “employee town hall meetings” in Seattle, Oakland, New York City, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Footage of these meetings shows Shultz holding a microphone up to seated employees of color, encouraging them to share their experiences with oppression and discrimination. Shultz describes these meetings as a “safe environment for people to talk about their life experience, their concerns, their vulnerability, and, in many cases, racial injustice.” This situation, however, is troubling for several reasons. It seems that Shultz wants to create a dialogue about race on his own terms, without acknowledging his privileges in the matter. Shultz’s facilitation of meetings about systematic oppression seems a prime example of how much space white people take up in discussions of this kind, whether in network news or an employee town hall meeting.

So, Shultz encouraged Starbucks baristas across the country to begin phase one of Race Together by writing “Race Together” on customers’ beverage cups. This, according to Shultz, would spark initial, productive discussions about and engagement with racial issues in America. Phase one ended swiftly on March 22, seven days after Race Together officially launched, due to an overwhelmingly negative public reaction to Starbucks’ newest social justice venture. In a post on Starbucks.com, Shultz wrote that this end date was “originally planned,” while Newsweek writer Stav Ziv reported that no end date for phase one was ever announced prior.

Hayley Peterson of Business Insider reported that Starbucks’ senior vice president of communications, Corey duBrowa, shut down his twitter account due to the amount of backlash the initiative incited. Tweets at DuBrowa included, “@coreydu why do you think I want to hear what a white barista with matted dreads thinks about race” from @fkabiggs, and “no one named corey who works for starbucks will ever do anything to improve race relations @coreydu” from @Cryptoterra. DuBrowa wrote in a post on Medium, “I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity” and told PR Week, “The tweets represented a distraction from the respectful conversation we’re trying to have around Race Together.”

“#RaceTogether” became a link to criticisms of Starbucks’ initiative with social media users around the nation using the hashtag ironically. @ReignOfApril tweeted, “Not sure what @Starbucks was thinking, I don’t have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train. #RaceTogether” @Duanecia tweeted, “The arrival of Starbucks is typically a key indicator of gentrification in low-income communities. But, #RaceTogether,” and @TananariveDue tweeted, “#RaceTogether from #Starbucks reminds me of TV shows with diverse casts but not diverse writers’ rooms. Representation = best conversation.”

In the March 23 episode of The Nightly Show, Black comedian Larry Wilmore joked, “You’re looking to make progress Starbucks? Okay, why don’t you start by not selling CDs in 2015?” Wilmore noted that when Gap implemented its RED campaign to fight the AIDS epidemic, store clerks did not approach customers and force them into awkward conversations about AIDS.

In the face of this backlash, Shultz has insisted that his intentions were genuine and altruistic with money far from his mind.

“This is not about the stock price or PR or marketing. I think this is a bigger issue that companies have a deeper responsibility these days to their people and the communities we serve, and I’m trying to use our scale for good,” he said.

In his March 22 letter on Starbucks.com, Shultz assured readers that Race Together will continue with more forums, pullouts in USA Today, and dialogue.

“The promise of the American Dream should be available to every person in this country, not just a select few,” Shultz wrote. “We leaned in because we believed that starting this dialogue is what matters most.”

It is admirable for powerful companies and businesspeople to take stances on social issues and try to affect change rather than just sitting idly on a pile of money. It is admirable for a massive corporation to create a grass roots movement with progress in mind. However, Starbucks runs into problems as it attempts to commodify racial dialogue and racial relations into strange, would-be informational pullouts about race in USA Today and neatly packaged town hall meetings, MC’d by an aging, white billionaire. It seems like Starbucks continually latches onto social issues because they are “hip”—many college students, for example, are well informed and socially active. With this campaign, Shultz may be trying to draw in a young, educated, socially minded customer base with a progressive but empty phrase scribbled on the cup of a soy latte. It seems that young activists can’t be bought.

While Shultz may feel good about his humble beginnings and the possibility of the rags to riches tale as a white male, it seems that customers can’t be bought by his performative, superficial means toward activism. American citizens have spoken, and, thanks to the power of social media, their voices of outrage and dissatisfaction have been amplified.