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Coffee, Tea, or a Frank Discussion on Race?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Starbucks is easy to make fun of on its best days, what with the pretentious names for everyday items, never mind the ridiculously high prices for those same everyday items. Even the cashiers have fancy monikers -- "barista."


The snootiness is by design, of course. And you can make fun of it all you want; it's worked. Using many of the same techniques realtors have employed to hawk borderline tenements as unique gateways to the urban experience, Starbucks has managed to educate the consumer that it's OK to pay through the nose for what used to be a "cuppa joe." Even that slightly burnt taste is spun as a feature, not a bug. We're subtly informed, "That's the way it's supposed to taste, you philistine."

Now, Starbucks has decided to lean into the mockery. Howard Schultz, the company's CEO, is launching a new initiative called "Race Together." Starting March 20, baristas will be encouraged to write "Race Together" on coffee cups "to facilitate a conversation between you and our customers" about their "race journey."

It's ironic. The Obama years were supposed to usher in an era of racial harmony. That didn't happen -- which presumably is why Schultz feels the need to help mend our racial wounds. What has happened, however, is that hordes of college graduates, unable to find jobs suitable to their degrees, have ended up toiling away at places like Starbucks.

It's kind of ingenious. Since sociology majors can't find relevant jobs, Schultz is making the jobs they have relevant to their majors. If this becomes a trend, maybe my dog walkers will start reciting Proust in French on their perambulations.

As a business decision, I find the whole thing bizarre. If I don't have my coffee in the morning, I get a headache that feels like a Hell's Angel is trying to press his meaty thumb through my forehead. This is not the most propitious moment to engage me in a conversation about my "race journey." Worse, Starbucks lines are already long. How much longer will they get when the barista takes 20 minutes out of his or her job to debate the Moynihan Report with a customer? And, given the handwriting of many baristas, how many customers will ask, "Who is Rance Tugagawa?"


I think part of the problem is that leaders of the Seattle-based company have read too many of their own press releases. Yes, it's a legitimately progressive company. And that branding has been part of its success. But the numinosity of its fair trade pamphlets and diversity policies does not extend down to the employees themselves. Working at Starbucks makes you no more qualified to be a discussion leader about race than working at Jiffy Lube makes you well-suited to discuss radical Islam.

And while it's all too easy to mock the entire enterprise, what really bothers me is the underlying assumption.

Most Americans lament the political polarization of our country. I think the worry is sometimes overblown, but even so, it's a real problem.

One of the reasons it has become such a problem is that we mistake causes for remedies. Schultz joins a long list of prominent people who insist that what this country needs is more conversation about race. And race is just one of the countless issues included in the national conversation shortage.

Among my problems with this relentless hectoring about the need for conversations or "honest dialogue" or "frank talk" is the way in which those calling for such things never actually want a real conversation. They want to speechify and indoctrinate. And, if you actually dare to say anything honest or frank, you can be sure the same people who want to create "safe places" for dialogue will leap at the opportunity to denounce your insensitivity, micro-aggression or alleged racism.


But my biggest problem with it is that I think the last thing this country needs is to make more spaces political. If you want to know why things are so polarized, you could start by noting how much more politicized everything is. When politics invades our homes, schools, workplaces, movies, TV shows, video games, sports and every other part of our culture, is it any wonder that our culture becomes politicized? And when culture is politicized, is it so shocking that politics becomes polarized?

While I think this new Starbucks idea is cockamamie, I have no doubt Schultz is well-intentioned. But converting coffee shops from safe harbors from politics to the front lines of politics isn't part of the solution, it's part of the problem.


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