I walked into my local Starbucks yesterday morning with a certain foreboding. As everyone must know, the chief executive officer of Starbucks, one Howard Schultz, had commanded that Starbucks employees ("baristas," in corporate parlance) write this phrase -- #RaceTogether -- on the coffee cups they hand to customers; and that if customers asked about it, offer to engage them in a discussion of race in America.
So far as I can tell, and it is no particular surprise, the initiative has been a failure. During the five minutes that I was inside my neighborhood Starbucks, there was no evidence of #RaceTogether scrawled on cups, and I overheard no discussions about race in America – especially among the baristas, who seemed especially harried. This was a great relief, from my perspective: My inclination to shoot the breeze with Starbucks employees (admittedly never very strong) is usually thwarted by the knowledge that several people are standing behind me waiting, impatiently, in line.
So we can safely assume, as Mr. Schultz seems not to have done, that the great majority of people who patronize Starbucks do not necessarily welcome a public conversation with strangers on a complex, delicate, and volatile political subject. This should be obvious to any Starbucks customer and, I suspect, to any Starbucks employee as well. That it seems not to have occurred to the Starbucks CEO, however, tells a story.
From last summer's Chai Tea/youth education initiative with Oprah Winfrey, to his now-ubiquitous photographs and public declarations on "controversial" topics, it seems evident that Howard Schultz regards himself as a public figure -- and one of the least attractive varieties of the species: The celebrity CEO. As with H. Ross Perot, John Y. Brown Jr., Lee Iacocca, Donald Trump, and others, Mr. Schultz appears to have concluded that a bully pulpit ranks among the rewards of success in business. Or worse, that the American people deserve the kind of attention previously lavished on Chryslers, fried chicken, or Manhattan real estate.
In this instance, the wisdom of the public appears to have been affirmed: Mr. Schultz's bumptious race initiative is being ignored. But what about Mr. Schultz's baristas? For the many and varied reasons people choose to work at Starbucks, a managerial command to talk to customers about race seems highly unlikely. Suppose a hapless barista should say the wrong thing, or offend some sensitive coffee drinker? Race, and intimations of racism, are not the same as talking about sports or the weather: People lose their livelihood, and lives are blighted, by racial discourse.
What sort of boss would treat his employees this way?