Analysis: Why Starbucks’ Bold Race Talk Matters

In a new initiative, the world’s largest chain of coffee shops dives into the trickiest issue in American society.
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. (Photo: Bobby Yip/Reuters)
Mar 17, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Steven Gray's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde.

Last December, while much of America was coming to terms with the high-profile deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police, Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, suddenly gathered hundreds of employees in his company’s Seattle headquarters. “The last few weeks, I have felt a burden of personal responsibility,” Schultz told his employees. “Not about the company, but about what’s going on in America.” He went on to write a personal letter to them that read, in part:

We cannot continue to come to work every day aware of the difficult and personal experiences facing our nation.... Despite the raw emotion around the events and the underlying racial issues, we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about them internally—not to point fingers or to place blame and not because we have answers but because staying silent is not who we are.

Soon, nearly 2,000 Starbucks employees across the country—in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and St. Louis—were having unusually open conversations about race.

Then, on Sunday, Starbucks, the world’s largest chain of coffee shops, ran a full-page ad in The New York Times that asked, “Shall we overcome?” The ad officially marked the launch of “Race Together,” a bold, risky corporate initiative that aims to drive conversations about one of the trickiest issues in American society. The initiative, which has been championed by Schultz, encourages baristas to write “Race Together” on coffee cups and, when it feels right, talk with customers about race. Later this week, USA Today, in partnership with Starbucks, will publish a special section about race.

Schultz says of the initiative: “It is an opportunity to begin to reexamine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society—one conversation at a time.”

It would be easy to skeptically dismiss Starbucks’ initiative as purely a public relations gimmick, a fleeting corporate social responsibility project, or even pandering. But the truth is, it’s hard to think of another American company that has so aggressively and publicly addressed the vexing matter of race.

Starbucks’ initiative matters—and is striking—for several key reasons. For starters, it’s risky to have front-line employees raising a subject like race—or any social or political issue, for that matter—with customers. Even some of the most open-minded, well-meaning Americans want to avoid talking about race. Those of us who are forced to constantly think about the role race plays in our lives do not necessarily want to be confronted with the topic at 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, when we’re just trying to wake up with a Venti caramel macchiato.

Then there’s a provocative question: Can a company force—or even suggest—that its employees talk about race with one another, and with customers? How deep can any conversation get in 90 seconds at a store counter? And on a pure business level, complex conversations can lengthen the amount of time it takes to get a cup of coffee. That’s a key issue for a company like Starbucks, which closely analyzes speed of service in terms of seconds.

This morning, I asked the barista at my neighborhood Starbucks in Manhattan what she thought of the new initiative. “I’m not comfortable talking about race,” she said flatly, sliding the Venti black coffee my way. “So we’ll just see how it works out.” The barista (she’s white; I’m black) didn’t write “Race Together” on my coffee cup—and frankly, I didn’t care. No one else inside the store appeared to be talking about race either.

“Race Together” aligns with Schultz’s long-held view that Starbucks stores are fundamentally community spaces—or, in the company’s lingo, a customer’s “third place” after home and the office. So there could be power in using Starbucks’ massive footprint of nearly 5,000 U.S. stores to drive conversations about race. Schultz is no stranger to social justice issues. His personal story is one of successful social mobility: He grew up in New York City public housing and watched his father endure a debilitating illness without health insurance. That background helps explain why Schultz has become more active on political causes lately, including expanding his employees’ access to education and health care.

It’s totally in sync with Schultz’s view that business must play an activist role in driving social progress. Nevertheless, to leverage his privilege on a tricky matter such as race is a bold move for a CEO, who must answer to board members and investors, both of whom are allergic to controversy. They will certainly be watching how Schultz handles the issue during Wednesday’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Seattle.

We should be skeptical. There’s clearly a public relations element in the initiative. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Part of the assessment of the initiative’s success will be how Starbucks deals with its own diversity issues—starting with its senior management team. It’s overwhelmingly white and male—not surprising when you look at the rest of the Fortune 500, but still optically off, given “Race Together.” The company is in a position to walk the talk by leading on this issue by developing and empowering diverse talent across its operations. That’s the real way to drive enduring progress in business and in society.