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Starbucks' push to make baristas talk about race sounds like it could be disastrous

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  • Starbucks has launched an initiative to encourage its employees and customers to have conversations about race.
  • CEO Howard Schultz has given baristas at 12,000 Starbucks locations the option to write the words "Race Together" on customers' cups and begin discussions about race relations.
  • The initiative is a partnership with USA Today. Full-page ads in the New York Times and USA Today this week have advertisements supporting the Race Together initiative, and USA Today will include an insert with materials on race designed to spark the desired discussions and a hashtag — #RaceTogether — to publicly share results. According to Starbucks, the plan will be further detailed during Starbucks' 2015 annual shareholders meeting in Seattle on Wednesday.

What this effort will achieve — and what it won't

According to Starbucks, the Race Together initiative is an outgrowth of the discussion forums the company held in response to the outcry over racially biased policing after Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner's in Staten Island, New York.

It appears to be a reflection of Schultz's sincere distress over the pain and hostility that often underlies national headlines and controversies related to race and racism. While there is no shortage of tweets making light of the potential pitfalls of the effort, it would be unfair not to note that Race Together is probably an honest attempt on his part to make America better.

That said, the initiative's undefined goals (encouraging people to talk generally about race without any measurable objective) and misguided tactics (setting people up to have complicated conversations without any direction or guidance) mean it's very unlikely to fix the racial bias that sparked it — and could even cause harm by distracting from substantive attempts to remedy racial inequality.

Talking about race isn't unusual

Race Together's premise seems to rest on the assumption that Americans don't like to talk about race, and that people buying and selling coffee can bravely take the lead in this area.

"We at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America," Schultz said.

But in fact, that willingness is not new, revolutionary, or unusual. People from celebrities to cable news hosts to politicians to everyday Americans (you can check for their input in the comments section of any article, or on social media) eagerly weigh in with their philosophies about and personal experiences related to race on a daily basis. Unfortunately, this often comes in the form of major generalizations about entire groups, layman's efforts to justify stereotypes, or dismissals of the idea that racism plays a role in contemporary life. By asking customers and baristas to share their unexamined and potentially misguided feelings about race, the initiative isn't doing something new — it's encouraging more of the same.

The initiative doesn't actually aim to fix anything

Schultz is quoted in a company news release as saying the goal of the initiative is "not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are."

So the objective literally is just to talk. Not to confront and dismantle racism. Not to identify its perpetrators (in fact, Schultz seems to discourage this). Not to find solutions to racial equality or decrease racial bias. But just to talk.

This confuses the problem in America with inadequate chitchat about race that fails to dismantle structural racism and make sure implicit bias (Read: Understanding the racial bias you didn't know you had) doesn't have a continued impact in every area of life.

But getting people to speak up about race isn't the hard part. In fact, the most racist and least informed among us are already especially comfortable talking about this topic. The challenge that needs to be addressed — and that Race Together doesn't even touch — is convincing people racism exists and is wrong, and that real changes need to be made to address how deeply it's embedded in American society.

Race isn't the problem — racism is

Starbucks' release describes the initiative as the continuation of the "discussion about race in America" that began during its Ferguson Forums, and Schultz characterizes it as "an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society — one conversation at a time."

According to USA Today, the "conversation starters" accompanying the initiative include things like, "In the past year, I have been to the home of someone of a different race ___ times" and " How have your racial views evolved from those of your parents?"

For instance, just think of the classic responses of a white person who's accused of being racist. "But I have black friends!" (or, better: "I'm not racist! I don't see color"), which are so common and so ridiculous that they're the often the butt of jokes. This is a reminder that people can perpetuate racism while simultaneously talking about it — and creating their own narratives about how race plays out in their personal lives.

The initiative seems to frame people of different races as something akin to fans of different sports teams — people who are on equal footing but have somehow become worked up over misplaced hostility toward one another that they would let go of if only they could recognize their common humanity. Focusing on this vague idea of race as a boogeyman that torments all of us equally (and might disappear if we just talk it out) doesn't actually force introspection about racism — which is the source of our problems.

If Starbucks wants to change Americans' thinking one person at a time, it would be better off making customers aware of their implicit biases and encouraging them to confront and reject them (studies have suggested this might actually be effective), rather than encouraging them to have conversations that suggest everyone's view is valid and helpful by virtue of being aired out in a coffee shop. For example, it could set up consoles at which anyone who was interested could take the computerized test created by Harvard researcher Mahzarin R. Banaji to assess subconscious associations about various racial groups.

It sets up employees to deal with customers' biases and hate

This initiative puts the 40 percent of Starbucks' US employees who are members of racial minority groups in the (awkward at best, potentially traumatizing at worst) position of opening themselves up to customer opinions that invalidate their experiences with racism or assault them with resentment over their very presence in the country.

After all, the Washington Post reported on a series of recent surveys that reveal some white Americans think discrimination against them is a bigger problem than discrimination against black people. Pew has found that whites and blacks hold dramatically different views of the very issue around Ferguson that sparked this initiative: racial bias and use of excessive force among police. Meanwhile, a 2013 Center for American Progress report concluded that 36 percent of Americans fret that rising diversity means "there will be no common American culture."

It's frightening to imagine the kinds of comments these beliefs could inspire in the short time it takes to make a latte.

Meanwhile, members of racial minority groups who simply want a cup of coffee might find themselves held hostage by baristas empowered by their employer to share their sincerely held but possibly disturbing views on these issues.

It's not just people of color who stand to be burdened by this plan. Thoughtful white customers who are aware of the role of racism in American society but are self-conscious about their lack personal expertise could be placed in the difficult position of being unprepared for an impromptu conversation and not wanting to offend or cause additional harm. Others could be baited into revealing their biases and end up feeling exposed, without any tools for dealing with the aftermath of a conversation in which they feel they've been set up to be the bad guy.

The very nature of a coffee shop interaction — quick and superficial — leaves plenty of room for casual repetition of racist beliefs and not much for education or increased understanding.

Schultz should have supported people and organizations that know what they're doing when it comes to racism

It's presumptuous — and a little delusional — of Schultz to think Starbucks is meeting an unmet need by making race a topic of focus. There are entire fields of study and organizations dedicated to dismantling racism's effects in our lives on a national and personal level.

This CEO — who, again, seems sincerely interested in remedying racism — had so many options other than throwing out the word "race" and saying, "Discuss!"

Just a few examples: He could have chosen to offer financial support to scholars, artists, and nonprofits that have long been dedicated to understanding and confronting racism and raising awareness about it. He could have partnered with organizations that work to dismantle discrimination, like the NAACP or ACLU. He could have supported the exchange of ideas by helping prop up underfunded ethnic-studies programs or offering his employees the chance to attend conferences like the ones put on by the racial justice organization Race Forward. He could have stocked his stores' shelves with historical texts about American racism, or the work of people like Tim Wise, a white anti-racist author.

There's plenty of existing knowledge about racism in America and countless people who dedicate their entire lives to the subject. Starbucks is in a position to amplify all of this by making simple financial contributions, supporting education, and making resources available to customers. Then, if people are moved to talk about these things over coffee, they can do so themselves.