There are plenty of reasons to keep ripping into Starbucks' ill-conceived #RaceTogether campaign. Let's not, however, throw the baby out with the iced caramel macchiato.
A couple weeks ago, the coffeehouse behemoth suggested its baristas put those hashtags, and similar stickers, on customers' cups. Management encouraged rank-and-file workers to engage with the public on the current poor state of race relations. This perky plan skunked in less than a week. And pundits burned the roofs of their mouths drinking so quickly from this scalding brew-ha-ha.
When the initiative first went public, Conan O'Brien quipped on his late-night talk show: “A barista asked me if I wanted my coffee ‘African American, or with a splash of Caucasian.'” Just this past weekend, Saturday Night Live mocked Starbucks with a fake commercial by Pep Boys, encouraging its mechanics to initiate conversations with the public about gender and sexuality differences. When two SNL cast members, dressed as Pep Boys grease monkeys, tell a customer that “Ellen DeGeneres used to be a man,” the customer implores that they just go get her car, now.
Point made. America's service workers are not paid enough, or professionally trained, to start a dialog on race relations.
I don't drink coffee. But to see if any beans were still grinding, I went to three Starbucks (two in downtown San Diego and one in North Park) to engage baristas, during non-peak hours. At my first stop (where I did not identify myself as a journalist), the 30-something female behind the bar seemed to honestly have never heard about #RaceTogether.
At two other locations, I told the employees I was a member of the media. I assume they were all Go-Go's fans, because, after that, their lips were sealed.
There are more than 20,000 Starbucks worldwide; more than a dozen in downtown San Diego, all a five-minute walk from each other. (Best-ever Onion headline: “Starbucks opens Starbucks in own restroom.”) But my field research was over.
Is the conversation, however, now a nonstarter?
Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz shouldn't be using the employees in his mega-chain to espouse his politics, foreign or domestic. Even behind a very positive message, it still reeks of Starbucks using race relations as a publicity ploy to push product.
The knuckle draggers at Chick-fil-A figured out the down-side of the corporate bully pulpit. After it awkwardly served conservative propaganda with boneless chicken-breast sandwiches a few years ago, Chick-fil-A released a statement that said: “Going forward, our intent is to leave the policy debate over same-sex marriage to the government and political arena.”
OK. But if we rely on politicians to kick-start the race-relations dialog, that ought to just get us an icebreaker in time for the country's tri-centennial.
Let's not wait for government action, or another national incident.
Late last year, Ferguson, Missouri, stepped into the spotlight after a black man was killed at the hands of white police officer, and the subsequent grand jury decision not to indict that officer. Protesters marched all over the country, including here in San Diego.
One peaceful march traveled from the Convention Center to Horton Plaza and back. Like many strolling along Fifth Avenue, I was interested to see what the spectacle was about. Unlike most, I accidentally discovered my teenage daughter was marching with the group. Parentally obliged, I trailed behind for the entire route.
The protesters voices' echoed inside Horton Plaza. Shoppers there put consumerism on hold, if only for a moment, to listen. It freaked a father out when the marchers stopped in the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Market Street, holding up traffic, protected by the police but drawing the ire of passersby.
The takeaway for me, stalking the event, was the buzz caused in its wake. When protesters walked by, the sideliners stopped to gauge intent, message and manner of presentation. Time and again, after the marchers passed, folks on the sidewalk turned to each other to weigh in on what they'd just seen. One nearsighted woman wondered why anybody was protesting in San Diego about something that happened in Missouri. A guy who'd stepped out of a bar for a smoke took a drag on his cigarette, exhaled and said, “Yup, that's the Ferguson thing.”
While not high on insight, that's actually an opener to dialog on race relations. You can do that while eating a slice of pizza. Or, even over a cup of coffee.
Do discuss. Go ahead and protest peacefully (but warn your dad). Don't just yell into a polarized echo chamber. Start a meaningful, sustained conversation. It needn't be sponsored by a multinational corporation.
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