Here’s Why Starbucks’#RaceTogether Initiative is Misguided

When Starbucks announced their new race initiative, #RaceTogether, that would see baristas attempting to hold conversations with customers surrounding race issues, the Twitter backlash was swift and conclusive. Downgrading the importance of race relations — or patronizing the efforts of those who work tirelessly to discuss race in more fitting environments by suggesting it can be easily dissected while waiting in a Starbucks line — proved laughable to most and just short of offensive to others.

Were it not for our collective eye-roll when it comes to the gimmicky nature of the corporate sanitization of various issues affecting our society, the outcry in response could have been relegated to just Black Twitter. However, given the diversity of social media, a community of citizens that is an actual microcosm of the world over, many, regardless of race, were unified in their expression of distaste. And that should tell Starbucks something.

The motive behind the initiative as CEO Howard Schultz describes comes from watching “with a heavy heart as tragic events and unrest have unfolded across America, from Ferguson, Missouri to New York City to Oakland, California.”

While a totally unexpected move on the part of the coffee retailer, #RaceTogether the initiative may not be too hard to fathom. Starbucks that prides itself as being more than just a brand and calls its employees “partners” to the extent that, as Fast Company reported in 2012, the company “mobilizes its employees to be brand evangelists”. In addition, Starbucks as a corporation may also see itself as a kind of “community kingmaker,” one that can wield influence like no other.

The Guardian reported earlier this year that according to real estate giant Zillow, “Starbucks fuels gentrification and so is responsible for higher housing prices.” This means just one Starbucks in a neighborhood could potentially change that neighborhood greatly. Not just in perception, but in real dollars and cents.

“Overlaying a map of Starbucks locations with Zillow’s database of 110m homes…over the span of 17 years US homes appreciated 65% on average, going from $102,000 in 1997 to $168,000 in 2014. Houses near Starbucks, on the other hand, appreciated 96%, according to their calculations – rising from an average of $137,000 in 1997 to now as much as $269,000.”

So if you believe that you can single-handedly turn a poor community into a middle class one, just by showing up and planting a flag, and that your employee “partners” are a particular type of brand loyalist, evangelist even, which sounds a bit omnipotent — then it should be easy to open up a dialogue about race too. And by easy, we mean reducing race into soundbites and platitudes by making your enterprise a sounding board for racial tension, but with no forethought to where those reverberations could take shape. Could it turn into tangible action? That’s the part that’s unknown and what makes the effort feel lazy…and self-serving.

Here’s the thing. Conversations about race have been happening for generations. Putting the words “race” and “together” on a coffee cup will never be a defining moment in the history of race relations. It sounds like a marketing mantra in the sense of “Just do it” or “Be all you can be.” But more pointedly, it feels like an empty-handed gimmick that’s meant to fortify brand loyalty between Starbucks, its employees, and the consumers who consider themselves loyalists. It’s a put-on feel good moment with a calling back to assuaging some underlying guilt that’s trickled down from within heads and minds closer to the clouds above on the executive rung of the employee ladder than those of the “partners” who make up 40 percent of Starbucks’ workforce and are racial minorities.

If you’re serious about working to end racial disparity, it’s not pity or sympathy communities need. It’s money. It’s resources. It’s systemic change. It’s a way out of food deserts. It’s a way into higher education. It’s a way out of the prison systems, and a way into more youth-oriented programming and better communication between citizens and those who police their neighborhoods. It’s providing opportunities for at-risk youth to turn into youths without risk. Starbucks should look at what’s happening in the giving sectors. Just this week two foundations came together to provide more than $11 million to put together “five projects that would transform public spaces and bring city residents together” in Philadelphia. And if that seems too much like throwing corporate money at community problems, then there’s always room to expand or start conversations around your company’s employee engagement in place of imploring “partners” start conversations with world weary customers. Perhaps a good place to start is in evaluating what part employees play in making decisions on the types of social innovation ideas they are expected to take part in. For instance, could your “partners” decide to take part in, volunteer with, or provide charitable contributions to a program like Ferguson’s Alternative Spring Break?

There are real things Starbucks and other corporations could do to assist communities that are struggling with poverty, disenfranchisement, and other inequities that can be attributed to race. Thinking outside the box on these issues doesn’t require a pronounced and marketable peg. What is most beneficial is greater understanding of and listening to the needs on the ground. That’s where Starbucks should have their ear.

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