Roger Simon: A latte, with a shot of cowardice
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Starbucks is such a fat target that you have to be nuts not to take a swing at it.
The coffee costs so much that some people call the place “Fivebucks.” English is not good enough for it.
You have to order a grande, venti or trenta (unless you are a stupido and order a short or a tall).
It has its own code, wherein you find yourself saying things like, “I’ll have a tall two-pump peppermint, two-pump mocha blended cream Frappuccino, half-caf skinny.”
And you say this to “baristas,” whose employee handbooks require them to be “welcoming,” “genuine,” “knowledgeable,” “considerate” and “involved.”
That last one is the tricky one.
Last week, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, decided it would be worthwhile for his baristas to write “Race Together” on the side of each coffee cup and start a discussion about race in America with their customers.
As far as CEOs go, Schultz does not appear to be exceptionally stupid. And he did not think writing two words with a fat black pen on the side of a cardboard cup would work miracles.
He had a much more modest goal. He wanted Americans to start talking about race in no matter how small or how brief a fashion.
And I say good for him. Race is the subject most Americans do not want to talk about. We talk about it only in moments of crisis, when we cannot ignore it, such as when unarmed black teenagers are gunned down on our streets.
ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news operation, released a report last October stating that “young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police.”
This was based on a study of raw FBI data, which is admittedly incomplete. Some cities don’t even bother to report such data.
Isn’t this worthy of some discussion? Or if we don’t want to jump into the deep end of the pool, couldn’t we at least stick a toe in the water by talking about how different racial groups view racial progress in America?
No, we can’t. Schultz was denounced as a hypocrite, a fool, a fraud, a dope, a dunce and a dimwit.
Schultz has been involved in controversies before — he has championed gay rights and gun control — and he felt that if he just had the tiniest chance to do something about race, it could be worthwhile.
After all, Starbucks sells 4 million coffee drinks per day in America, and 40 percent of its employees are minorities. So maybe on the smallest, most optimistic of levels, a conversation between people of different races would begin in a few Starbucks establishments. Somewhere. Sometime.
“Conversations are being ignored because people are afraid to touch the issue,” Schultz said earlier this year. “But if I ignore this and just keep ringing the register, then I become part of the problem. So here we are. Let’s talk.”
The reaction to Schultz’s plan largely ranged from ridicule to derision. Which is not much of a range. But it is something Twitter is particularly well-suited for.
I am not saying some of the tweets were not funny or trenchant.
“Being a barista is hard enough. Having to talk #RaceTogether with a woman in Lululemon pants while pouring pumpkin spice is just cruel.”
“Not sure what Starbucks was thinking. I don’t have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train.”
“If only Selma had just put in a starbucks.”
Some also wrote longer commentaries. And the general tone was often one of anger and disbelief that a mere barista could talk meaningfully about race.
Andrea King Collier, a journalist and author, wrote: “The baristas, as pleasant as they may be, can’t write a name accurately on a cup to save their lives. I have been Andrew, Annette, Austin and Audrey. Maybe, Starbucks should start a spelling campaign first, before a race conversation campaign.”
Danielle Henderson wrote for Fusion: “It’s the height of liberal American idealism and a staggering act of hubris to think we can solve our systemic addiction to racism over a (Frappuccino).”
But Schultz didn’t think he would “solve” anything. He just wanted to start a discussion. And who came up with a better idea? Who came up with any idea?
The alternative is what we have now: Silence. Avoidance. Looking the other way. Burying our heads in the sand.
In 2009, Eric Holder made a speech after being sworn in as America’s first black attorney general.
“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as [an] ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and we, I believe, continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” Holder said.
He called for a “national conversation” on race. He didn’t think it would be easy, but he thought it would be necessary.
He received no support from President Barack Obama, who, after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, said it is not “particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations” on race.
So here it is 2015, and a nonpolitician who owns a bunch of coffee joints tries to organize such a conversation. And the public outcry against the idea becomes so great that he is forced to drop the idea after just a few days.
On Sunday, Schultz said that though Starbucks will continue to try to improve race relations in America, it was abandoning the writing of “Race Together” on coffee cups and initiating chats about race.
According to Fortune magazine, many customers had feared it “would slow service inside Starbucks’ restaurants.”
And we wouldn’t want that.
I mean, what’s a dead teenager compared with having your soy latte come cold?