WORK-LIFE BALANCE / APR. 20, 2015
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Starbucks' 'Race Together' Needed Despite Uproar

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Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s effort to spark some healthy dialogue about America’s longstanding race issues quickly ignited a firestorm on social media. In fact, it became so hot that the Latte king, who reigns over a coffee empire of 21,000 retail stores in 66 countries, 4,700 of which are located in the U.S., had to abruptly extinguish the campaign almost three weeks after it was launched.

On Twitter, Schultz’s ‘Race Together’ campaign was called “patronizing”, “absurd” and “a load of crap.” On ‘The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore’, one of panelists from the ABC News show ‘The View’, Rosie Perez said, “I don’t want to be forced to have a conversation. Especially early in the f-----g morning.”

But despite what Perez and the legions of angry Twitter followers might think, the conversation will never stop as long as some folks continue to refuse to listen or read the never-ending headlines of black men being shot by white police officers, the anti-Semitic graffiti painted on college campuses, and the racial slurs that have cropped up chants, e-mails and on white boards. As a matter fact, The Washington Post followed up with new research that suggests that these blatant civil rights injustices have made some people concerned about America’s diverse and often praised millennial generation, and whether or not they are becoming more insensitive to race relations.

Schultz has, however, vowed to rev up the campaign again sometime in the future. If, and when this happens, will anyone ever have enough courage to join him?

See also: Starbucks Encourages Employees to Engage in Racial Discussions

The Coffee Movement

On March 15th, some of The New York Times’ readers were shocked when they saw the big-splashy full page ad—a blunt, black page with a tiny caption that read: “Shall We Overcome?” in the middle with the words “Race Together” and the company logo underneath it. The next weekend, the same ad appeared in ‘USA Today’ as a part of Schultz’s controversial master plan to set in motion a national dialogue on race. His strategy included encouraging Starbucks’ baristas to write the words "Race Together" on customers’ cups of Cinnamon Dolce Light Frappuccino Grande or Caffe Misto Venti with extra coconut, says USA Today.

As posted in The Huffington Post, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Larry Kramer, President and Publisher of ‘USA Today’ described ‘Race Together’ as "an initiative from Starbucks and ‘USA Today’ to stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America. ‘Race Together’ is not a solution, but it is an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society – one conversation at a time."

Instead of becoming the butt of jokes, endless social media rants and ignorant memes, the initiative was created in response to the recent wave of racial incidents that have occurred, such as when grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the murders of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., near St. Louis, and 43-year-old Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y. The most recent was when a park-goer shot a video that shows a white Charleston, N.C. police officer firing eight shots at a fleeing black man. According to the Los Angeles Times, during a local rally and sympathy calls by elected officials trying to prevent a remake of the other protests that have escalated across the country, the White House also chimed in again. This time, however, a spokesman said the video, filmed by a young man with a cellphone, was “hard to watch.”

But for over 2,000 of Starbucks’ employees, some of the country’s more publicized racial incidents had already sparked some honest and spirited reactions. It was back in December when Schultz hosted an open forum for his workers in Oakland, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York, and Chicago. Next, Schultz bravely took action by giving the baristas the option to start a discussion about race by handwriting the words “Race Together” on coffee cups. In addition, he worked with Kramer to distribute copies of the daily print edition of ‘USA Today’ that included inserts with information about race relations. The inserts were also available at the coffee shops. And among those actually excited to get one was a Huffington Post contributor, Kimberly Cooper.

“What would happen when I went for my own Grande Pike later that day? Would I actually get a cup with ‘Race Together’ written on it like the ones media outlets were already publicizing with ridicule?” Cooper wrote. “Unsurprisingly, execution of this phase (stickers on the cup) of the campaign hadn’t been ‘perfected’ within those first three days.”

But by March 29th, the embattled Schultz had sent a letter to his employees that baristas would no longer be urged to write the phrase on customers’ coffee cups, ending a broadly “derided component of the company’s plan to promote a discussion on racial issues,” says the Los Angeles Times. And any hope that a few coffee beans would help improve America’s race relations was put on hold. But a U.S. syndicated columnist for The Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts, Jr. believes that critics may have prematurely rejected Schultz’s “good intentions”.

“Besides, Schultz’s biggest mistake was not in having baristas write a trite slogan, but in his failure to realize that much of the country is simply not equipped for the conversation he is inviting them to have,” Pitts wrote. “Last week, even as ‘Race Together’ was being lampooned, I spent 41 minutes I’ll never get back on the phone with a white, Jewish reader who had insisted she wanted to have the ‘conversation on race’ I have often said this country needs.” 

Pitts Jr. added that before Americans can have a productive conversation about race, they will first need to reject the stereotypes and be willing to learn about and eventually embrace diversity. However, the recent headlines of racial incidents suggest that this might be easier said than done.

The Cookie Movement

Just a few days before the ‘Race Together’ campaign was launched, reports of the two University of Oklahoma students that were expelled for spearheading a racial chant among their Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers, included lyrics bragging that there would never be an African-American member. The chant also included lyrics about lynching with the words “You can hang ‘em from a tree.” The university’s president, David L. Boren, a former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator, told The New York Times that the chant that initiated protests on campus was probably being recited on other campuses.

“I’m not sure that it’s strictly local,” said Boren.

Maybe, maybe not. But the upsurge of racial incidents is definitely not restricted to the University of Oklahoma. Just five days after the “Race Together” campaign ended, a student at Duke University had admitted to hanging a noose made of rope from a tree near a student union. According to CNN, students and faculty members held an impromptu protest on campus singing "We are not afraid. We stand together" after pictures of the noose were posted on social media.

"You came here for the reason that you want to say with me, ’This is no Duke we will accept. This is no Duke we want. This is not the Duke we’re here to experience. And this is not the Duke we’re here to create,’” Duke President Richard Brodhead told the protestors, as reported by CNN.

Two days before, the University of Mississippi was also in the news when another noose was hung around the neck of a statue of a famous civil rights figure. Around the same time, a University of South Carolina student was suspended after a photo showing her writing a racist slur on a campus whiteboard went viral and prompted The Christian Science Monitor to ask “Are American college students ’colorblind’ or apathetic to racism?"

The Washington Post researchers followed up by reviewing five racial-based surveys. Among many other questions, says The Washington Post, the survey asked respondents to rank whites and blacks on a scale from being "hardworking" to "lazy". Through the surveys, researchers discovered that over three in ten white millennials “believe blacks are lazier or less hardworking than whites, and a similar number say lack of motivation is a reason why they are less financially well off as a group”. Researchers also found that a little under a quarter of white millennials think that blacks are less intelligent, while fewer had any issues with interracial marriage or living in a community with 50 percent black homeowners. Shocking? Maybe, maybe not.

“Who can speak sensibly on a subject he doesn’t understand? And we’ve been foiled in our quest to understand by an institutional conspiracy of ignorance,” Pitts wrote. “Race has done more than arguably any other social force to shape this country, yet somehow news media do not cover it, unless forced to do so by crisis or controversy”.

So, in the end, the controversy surrounding Starbucks’ "Race Together" campaign is not the only conversation about race relations in America. The problem is, however, that most of the dialogue about it tends to lean toward the negative side. But picking up the commentary, and taking the criticism for pushing its own version of holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ among the races, was Nabisco who splashed the slogan "Whites surrounded by blacks!" on packages of Oreo cookies. It was during the same week that Starbucks killed its campaign when a wave of protests followed in 12 U.S. states, then corporate and religious groups as well as the White House had denounced the cookie campaign, says the Los Angeles Times.

"Some have asked why a cookie company is talking about racism. If not a cookie company, then who,” the food giant spokesman, Ted Knudsen, asked in response to the criticism. “The Oreo is black on the outside but white on the inside. It’s a wonderful cookie, unlike racism, which is largely bad.”

See also: 5 Examples of Racism in the Workplace

If only it were as simple as sharing a cookie with cream in the middle.

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