Article by Luke Carberry Mogan | esPResso Staff Writer
With racially charged events, including the Ferguson race riots and December’s NYPD shootings, still ever-present in news headlines, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said during the company’s annual shareholders meeting that it was time to “demonstrate a level of respect, leadership and concern that can make a difference.” On Monday, March 16, the coffee company began its #RaceTogether campaign in the hopes of sparking open discussion of current race politics in America.
According to USA Today, Schultz discussed his strategy at Starbucks’ annual shareholders meeting after conducting several open forum meetings with employees in the regional branches to hear how they have been affected from current events regarding race.
Starbucks baristas were given the option to write the phrase “Race Together” on coffee cups they handed to customers. When asked about the phrase, employees were encouraged to engage in conversations about race.
Although a Starbucks coffee shop might not appear to be the most suitable venue for a topic of such magnitude, the company believes that discussing race relations is “worth a little discomfort,” which was what the company published to its Twitter account as a response to critics. In this video, this discomfort can be seen as customers ask Starbucks employees about #RaceTogether.
As #RaceTogether went viral, Starbucks encountered backlash. The company experienced criticism on Twitter as customers used the hashtag to express their outrage. A link to Starbucks’ executive board was spread around on the Internet, attacking the leadership for a lack of diversity. Vice Media showcased digital artist Matthew Skormarovsky’s composite painting of all Starbucks executives and his claim that the piece “ultimately points out that Starbucks is a very white, male-dominated company, just like most other large companies in America.”
Corey duBrowa, Starbucks’ senior vice president of global communications, temporarily deactivated his Twitter account on Monday, the first day #RaceTogether went into effect. He told CNN this action was a result of “feeling personally attacked in a cascade of negativity…overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion” after facing criticisms of the campaign.
SaSteh Bennerson, a Marist student and occasional customer to the coffee chain, said, “Starbucks is an American company and has the ability to participate in government. The campaign may be informal, and not have the most suitable environment, but it definitely promotes the idea of igniting community discussion in issues that matter.”
Despite the campaign’s overwhelming negative feedback, CNN reporter David Love defended Starbucks’ attempt to influence how the race dynamic is approached. “Let’s not attack Starbucks for doing the right thing and getting the ball rolling on race. The only thing worthy of criticism is that other companies haven’t done it, and that’s something that needs to change,” he is quotes as saying in the news story.
Although Starbucks ended its in-store #RaceTogether campaign on Sunday, March 22, due to negative backlash, it is clear that the company’s actions sparked some sort of discussion. The company still plans to continue its partnership with USA Today, which ran the campaign last week.