Basu: How Starbucks can more practically address racial issues

Pia Basu, Columnist

After facing almost universal backlash over its “Race Together” campaign, Starbucks has scaled back its efforts to foster common understanding and address racial tension in this country. The initiative began when Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz sought an “opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society — one conversation at a time,” as he said in a statement in response to the racial tension in Ferguson and in other places around the country. This campaign asks Starbucks baristas to engage their customers in conversation about racial issues if their customers inquire why “Race Together” is written on their cups.

After widespread negative feedback, Schultz decided to do away with the writing of “Race Together” on cups but remains committed to the general principles of the campaign. Starbucks will partner with USA Today as previously planned to increase dialogue on racial issues, try to increase the number of Starbucks stores in minority communities and host forums on these topics. Schultz acknowledged he did not expect a universally positive response, but now the company seems to be struggling with the public relations issues this campaign has caused.

Starbucks is known for being a successful company committed to social justice, international development and general corporate social responsibility. It created its own standards for buying coffee, called CAFE (Coffee and Farmer Equity), and works closely with environmental groups to minimize its footprint.

It has also attempted to foster dialogue on other serious issues such as job growth and gun control. However, logistically, the “Race Together” campaign as it stood was bad for business and frustrating for both patrons and baristas and also ran the risk of seeming like a publicity stunt or an illogical opportunistic move by Schultz.

In terms of execution, the original initiative had many practical problems. Many people just want to grab their coffee and leave to catch a train or to get to work on time. Or, if people want to sit down, they almost always have other plans for what they would like to do while there — meeting a friend, studying, catching up on emails and so on. If given a cup with “Race Together” and expected to take action, customers who want to get their coffee quickly or sit in peace would likely take their business elsewhere, or become frustrated. Baristas already have responsibilities that include taking often customized and complicated drink orders, preparing food and working the registers. They would be forced to multitask, which is detrimental to their work experience as well as to the service they provide to customers. Furthermore, being willing to engage in racial discussions with customers was not and should not be a requirement for baristas, and therefore they should not have these extra responsibilities thrust onto them.

I believe Schultz and his company care deeply about their social responsibility. And I don’t think Starbucks should be criticized for trying to tackle domestic racial issues. I think the ideas for this campaign came from a well-intentioned place. I don’t see this as entirely a media stunt because Starbucks didn’t suddenly decide to become socially conscious — by implementing “Race Together,” it simply expanded the issues it wants to tackle.

However, in determining where Starbucks takes its campaign now after it was almost forced to scale back, it should strive to choose policies and programs that don’t make its patrons uncomfortable and overburden baristas. If it really is serious about taking on the challenge and responsibility required to address these issues, Starbucks would do well to first use its popular appeal among young, tech-savvy people to its advantage. It can use its social media presence to raise awareness through sharing facts and personal stories, and people will be happy to buy products from a company that concerns itself with these important issues, rather than being forced to engage at times they don’t want to. Starbucks can promote and host open forums within which people can discuss these issues on their own time, at their own level of comfort.

Certainly, people should be cognizant of racial issues, given the seriousness of the problem at hand and that every American is affected and responsible. Uncomfortable conversations must be had if any social change is to happen. If Starbucks wants to tackle this problem through its customers and everyday business, it has a right to. We can’t demand or expect that companies strive to be socially responsible and then attack them when they devise an elaborate plan to do so.

Pia Basu is a Medill freshman. She can be reached at [email protected].  If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].