Our Pledge To You


Starbucks’ ‘Race Together’ effort shows talking about race is still a minefield

Race is always a hot topic. But when black males are being killed by white police officers, and white males are being caught on video chanting racial slurs, talking about race is like walking onto a minefield.

So it isn’t surprising that Starbucks’ “Race Together” initiative was derided as ridiculous even before the sticker was slapped on the first latte.

Indeed, as Gwen Ifill, the co-host of “PBS NewsHour” tweeted on Tuesday: “Honest to God, if you start to engage me in a race conversation before I’ve had my morning coffee, it will not end well.”

The “Race Together” campaign is a partnership between Starbucks and USA Today.

The day before the launch on Friday, I stopped in at the Starbucks at 71st and Jeffery.

“We passed out some cups, but we haven’t passed out a lot,” a young woman said as she rushed to fill orders.

“We get kind of busy in here,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with it. But you can tell if it’s going to be a problem when you pass out the cup.”

I’m not identifying any of the baristas I spoke with because apparently while Starbucks wants customers chatting about race, the company doesn’t want its employees talking to reporters.

“Unfortunately, we will have to politely decline your request to interview Starbucks” employees, a company representative said. “We strive to keep our store disruptions to a minimum to avoid interfering with business and our customers.”

The 71st and Stony Island Starbucks is like a neighborhood bar without the booze.

Thursday afternoon, there were about a dozen customers, the vast majority of them African-Americans.

The man in front of me in line excitedly chatted with the cashier — not about race — but about his upcoming wedding.

“It’s not like you are coming just to get coffee,” a different barista told me. “We know people’s names. We know their families. With everything that has been happening lately in the community and around the company, Starbucks has really taken the initiative to start a positive dialogue.”

But Starbucks seemed unprepared to deal with the backlash it has gotten. Its senior vice president for global communications had to briefly suspend his Twitter account because of the negative and abusive commenters.

Welcome to my world.

Race isn’t a conversation for the faint-hearted.

For a lot of white people, a conversation about race is an opportunity to unload negative stereotypes about African-Americans.

While blacks will often talk about police brutality, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and ongoing discrimination in the workplace, most whites will point to the high rate of out-of-wedlock births, crime and apathy in predominantly black communities as the source of racial tensions.

Anyone who engages in a frank discussion about race with someone of a different race is likely to emerge feeling abused.

But no worries. Starbucks has a remedy for that.

“If people don’t want the “Race Together” on their cup, we would say: ‘I’d like to apologize. We will get you another drink.’ That’s their prerogative,” the barista said.

Imagine how that’s going to look to whoever is next in line.