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The week began with Starbucks announcing that in an effort to address what it sees as continuing racial tensions in America, its baristas would attempt to spark a conversation with consumers by writing two words - "Race Together" - on coffee cups. In addition, the stores will be handing out a special "Race Together" newspaper supplement, co-authored with USA Today, on Friday.

USA Today writes that "Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz is on a mission to encourage Starbucks customers and employees to discuss race, under the firm belief that it's a critical first step toward confronting — and solving — racial issues as a nation. It is scheduled to be a key topic at the java giant's annual meeting on Wednesday."

In a letter published in the supplement, Schultz and Larry Kramer, president and publisher of USA Today, write, "Racial diversity is the story of America, our triumphs as well as our faults ... Yet racial inequality is not a topic we readily discuss. It's time to start." Schultz already has begun the process, hosting discussions on the topic with thousands of employees around the country.

""Race Together is not a solution," the letter goes on to say, "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."

The problem was that when people go into Starbucks, they seemed to want coffee. Not a lecture, a seminar, or even, necessarily, a long conversation on an important national issue. At the same time, pundits showed a certain skepticism about the company's motivations.

"Half-assed efforts at creating the appearance of a corporate social conscience are suspect at best," Salon writes. "It’s even worse when the corporation, which is often a harbinger of gentrification, is so clearly seizing upon a moment of national tension, violence and anger to promote itself."

The San Diego Union Tribune reports that a "public incredulous at the idea pummeled the company on Twitter with such ferocity that Starbucks’ senior vice president of communications Corey duBrowa deleted his account. Then they pummeled it some more." The public relations executive said he deleted his account because some of the attacks were personal, and were distracting from the broader purpose.

The Washington Post writes that "the most ridiculous part of the new campaign is that it treats the very real problem of racial bias and tension as, at best, a peg for a marketing gimmick and, at worst, as something that can be waved away by simply thinking about it. Like most companies, Starbucks has a public articulation of its commitment to diversity. Unlike many companies, it actually has a program that aims to give business to minority- and woman-owned businesses. That program, still publicized but much more quietly, is the sort of thing that actually can help bolster job growth and help eliminate the racial barriers that exist in the business world. But it doesn't sell much coffee."
KC's View:
Let's assume for the moment that Starbucks' motivations were entirely pure, and that the company wasn't just looking for publicity pegged to an important and divisive national issue. Because to assume the other would be to suggest t level of corporate cynicism that would be utterly breathtaking.

I still think this idea is a mistake.

I'm all in favor of internal discussions with baristas and other employees on the subject of race. I think that makes sense. A lot of different kinds of people come into Starbucks stores all over the country each day, and making sure that employees are sensitive to racial issues seems to me to be a perfectly legitimate - even necessary corporate priority. After all, a quick look on the map tells me that there are a number of Starbucks pretty close to Ferguson, Missouri (though not actually in Ferguson), and there appears to be a Starbucks on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, less than a half-mile from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house.

But lecturing customers simply isn't the way to create conversation, especially when you are counting on baristas - who have plenty to do just making coffee, thank you, and who may simply not be equipped to have this discussion - to do it.

I think that Schultz has been on point when he's addressed things like political gridlock, because that's an issue for which he can draw a clear line connecting it to the company's interests, and can do so without lecturing customers. (Though, to be fair, he does tend to cross that line from time to time.) But this is different, and I think the whole approach has been ham-handed.

I heard a presentation the other day in which the speaker made the argument that racism is going away in America, and that young people simply don't see color (or gender or ethnicity or sexual orientation). Isn't it be pretty to think so.

Recent events would suggest that nothing could be farther from the truth. But I'm not sure scribbling on a coffee cup, and then attempting to create a conversation for just a few seconds about a critical national issue that deserves far greater attention and time, is the best way to go.

Besides, I'm not even sure baristas are buying into it. I bought a venti nonfat latte last night. Nobody wrote anything on the cup.

Still, look for Schultz to defend the initiative today at the company's annual meeting. I've always believed that he has a bit of a messiah complex, and messiahs don't give up easily.

As for Corey duBrowa ... well, if you can't stand the heat...