Commentary

Schultz Says #RaceTogether 'Is Not Some Marketing Or PR Exercise'

Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz aggressively defended the company’s new “#RaceTogether” initiative at the company’s annual meeting yesterday following such widespread criticism online and elsewhere that Corey duBrowa (@coreydu), its SVP of global communications, temporarily deleted his Twitter account writing: "I felt personally attacked in a cascade of negativity …. Most of all, I was concerned about becoming a distraction from the respectful conversation around Race Together that we have been trying to create.”

The effort “to spark conversations about racism by having baristas write ‘Race Together’ on coffee cups triggered an Internet firestorm of criticism, as thousands criticized the effort as ineffective, insincere, or just plain insipid,” reports Ángel González in the hometown Seattle Times.

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“This is not some marketing or PR exercise,” Schultz said yesterday. “This is to do one thing: use our national footprint and scale for good.” 

He also said “he didn't think Starbucks would solve the country's ‘centuries-old problems of racism’ but that he thinks it can make a difference. He said workers don't have to participate, and that stores will make customers another drink or cover up cups if they don't like the message,” the AP reports.

“The good news, I guess, is that Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz realizes that racism is a problem,” writes Alexandra Petri for the Washington Post’s ComPost blog in one of the more tempered criticisms. “The bad news is that he thinks he has figured out what step to take next: He will urge baristas to write ‘Race Together’ on your $5 coffee, and then they will explain to you about the need for compassion and about how we, as a nation, are better than that.”

Starbucks also announced a 2-for-1 stock split yesterday and “shed light on its plans to deliver hot coffee to its customers, saying it will start testing two new delivery services in the second half of this year in an effort to make its stores in dense cities work more like highly productive outlets with drive-through windows,” Ilan Brat reports in the Wall Street Journal.

But the conversation about race — be it bold, ill-advised or just too simplistic — dominated the headlines.

The initiative certainly was not launched without thought. A Time cover story by Rana Foroohar last month led with a description of a forum on race that Schultz led with 400 employees in Manhattan in January. It was one of “five cities where Starbucks employees from top managers to entry-level baristas could speak frankly about their experiences with racism,” Foroohar reports.

Mellody Hobson, an African-American woman who is president of Ariel Capital Management and a member of the Starbucks board, delivered a Ted Talk in Vancouver last May that “makes the case that speaking openly about race — and particularly about diversity in hiring — makes for better businesses and a better society,” while suggesting that the topic can be a “conversational third rail.” 

Her opening anecdote is telling of the systemic difficulties facing people of color. She also addressed the annual meeting on the topic yesterday.

Before the meeting, the Seattle Times’ González reports, “Starbucks released some statistics about the ethnic and racial makeup of its workforce: 40% of its U.S. staffers are ethnic minorities, and so are 18% of its top 50 leaders.

“It also showed an eight-page supplement, produced jointly with USA Today, that it will distribute both in that newspaper and in its stores as part of what it calls a yearlong effort ‘to stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America.’”

“A conversation that leads to something other than frustration requires preparation, a systems analysis, and potential solutions that reach beyond changing individual mindsets or behavior,” writes Rinku Sen, executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, in an “Open Letter To Starbucks and USA Today.” “We have to address the rules that govern our institutions and shape our lives — many of which appear to be race-neutral in their intention, but are far from neutral in their impact.”

The organization last year published “Moving the Race Conversation Forward,” a two-part report that “first, describes some of the major impediments to productive racial discourse in the United States, and second, profiles and provides lessons from several recent interventions and initiatives that are breaking down significant barriers toward racial justice.”

In her letter, Sen offered to discuss partnering with Starbucks and USA Today “to move our country toward racial justice and unity … over coffee, and the morning paper.”

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