Starbucks ends 'race together' campaign

Following an explosion of derision on social media and in the blogosphere, Starbucks has instructed its baristas to stop writing “race together” on coffee cups in hopes of generating deep conversations on sensitive issues as caffeine-addicted customers wait in line for their fix.  I never understood how this intrusion into a volatile topic was a good idea, but then again, I am not the mega-wealthy president of a company that has created billions of dollars of value for its shareholders, so what do I know?  Howard Schultz is, and he thought it was a great idea.

The company claims that the campaign was intended to last only a week.  The Wall Street Journal reports:

Mr. Schultz, in a letter to employees, said that as of Sunday they would no longer be asked to write “Race Together,” or place similar stickers, on cups given to customers. He said that discontinuing that element of the Race Together initiative was part of Starbucks’s plan from the beginning.

That timing wasn’t mentioned in materials Starbucks put out publicly in the past week to trumpet the campaign. But Jim Olson, a Starbucks spokesman, said that March 22 had been communicated to its stores previously as the planned last date for the cup-writing part of the campaign, and that Sunday’s change wasn’t a response to criticism. (snip)

A document that he said was sent to all U.S. stores on March 16, which he provided to The Wall Street Journal, shows a timeline for different parts of the Race Together initiative and says “March 16-22: Write ‘Race Together’ or ‘Together’ on Cups.”

Speaking of Wall Street, the campaign certainly did not damage the company’s stock price. 

But the company did face a lot of embarrassing criticism about the lack of minorities in its senior management, and the fact that its stores are not found in minority communities as often as they are in predominantly white areas.  Criticism of the move was not limited to angry white males, either:

“The Starbucks plan is a flawed one,” Gwen Ifill, co-anchor of the television news program “PBS NewsHour,” wrote on the PBS website on Friday. “A ‘conversation’ about race cannot be a fleeting one. It certainly cannot be an under-caffeinated one.”

I, for one, am rather picky about whom I engage in conversation, and not just about race.  I felt very sorry for the poor baristas (stereotypically, liberal arts graduates who can’t find a better job, but, whether or not that is accurate, people who find themselves on the lower end of the income scale) forced to ad lib on a touchy subject with strangers.  There is a lot of downside, and not a whole lot of upside.

One other factor that troubled me: raising a contentious subject while people are holding scalding hot liquids can be dangerous.  When dealing with the general public, you have to allow for the possibility that irrational, angry people will react badly.

I completely avoided Starbucks outlets during the campaign, having no desire to risk possible aggravation.  But then again, I was given a Starbucks gift card a couple of years ago, and it has not yet been played out.  I make an excellent cup of joe at home and have little need to spend multiple bucks for a caffeine fix.  But as long as Starbucks is raising sensitive topics, how about this? (hat tip: