Starbucks employees now encouraged to berate you over thorny racial issues in America

We now live in an era in which corporate executives have grown convinced that their customers don’t merely want a product or a service, but spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. And they’re relying on their entry-level employees to provide it.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has decided that his 4,700-store enterprise is no longer just going to be offering customers coffee, frothy drinks, and overpriced pastries. His baristas will soon serve up a venti-size helping of social justice.

“Starbucks published a full page ad in the New York Times on Sunday — a stark, black, page with a tiny caption ‘Shall We Overcome?’ in the middle, and the words ‘Race Together’ with the company logo, on the bottom right,” read a Fortune Magazine report previewing a forthcoming Starbucks campaign in which the coffee chain’s baristas will be encouraged to talk about race relations with their customers.

Beginning on Monday, Starbucks baristas will have the option as they serve customers to hand cups on which they’ve handwritten the words “Race Together” and start a discussion about race. This Friday, each copy of USA Today— which has a daily print circulation of almost 2 million and is a partner of Starbucks in this initiative — will have the first of a series of insert with information about race relations, including a variety of perspectives on race. Starbucks coffee shops will also stock the insert.

In a video addressing Starbucks’ nearly 200,000 workers, 40% of whom are members of a racial minority, Schultz dismissed the notion that race was too hot a topic business-wise for Starbucks to tackle.

“I reject that. I reject that completely,” he said in the video address. “It’s an emotional issue. But it is so vitally important to the country,” he continued, pointing to that the United States is “so much better” than what the current state of race relations portray it to be.

If this sounds a little familiar, it should. Schultz became a favorite among inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom peddlers when he directed his employees to write “come together” on their customer’s cups in an effort to preempt the government shutdown of 2013. Shockingly, this well-meaning effort failed to avert a shutdown. It did, however, make Schultz feel exceedingly good about his life choices as he absorbed volley after volley of compliments on the set of Morning Joe.

This latest campaign feels like an extension of McDonald’s disastrously failed effort to accept a simple act of joy as remuneration for their services. The “Pay with Lovin’” campaign, which ostensibly allowed customers to purchase their Big Mac by dancing or calling their mom, was scrapped when a handful of hapless McDonald’s customers — blackmailed by their servers into forced performance art — complained mightily over the trauma they suffered.

If it does compel baristas to engage with customers in the briefest of exchanges on one of the most complex and knotty subjects in American life while they wait for their latte to foam, this latest Starbucks campaign is much worse than McDonald’s well-meaning but ill-conceived promotional stunt. These employees will be compelled to engage in conversations on an issue on which most people already have preconceptions they regard as founded in righteousness and principle. It is invariably true that these principled beliefs on race will be controversial or even offensive for someone. Unless Schultz is encouraging his employees to fire off pearls of anodyne pabulum like “Our hearts are all the same color,” he is asking his employees to tread ill-equipped across a rhetorical minefield.

As someone who writes about race-related controversies and who takes strong positions on those issues when they arise, I can think of nothing so abusive to a young writer – much less a food service professional – as thrusting them unwillingly and without proper preparation into that gauntlet. If Schultz is so keen on addressing persistent racial issues, he should set an example. There isn’t a cable booker on Earth that would pass up the chance to sit the CEO of Starbucks on their set and pepper him with inquiries on thorny racial matters like:

Why are incarceration rates for black men without a high school diploma two to three times higher than they are for whites with a similar educational background?

Has the disintegration of the American family and the expansion of the welfare state contributed to this condition?

How can disparity of outcomes for blacks and whites be addressed when even the 2010 census indicates that African-Americans are more likely than any other demographic group to have received some college education, indicating that America is getting closer to parity in terms of opportunity?

According to the Department of Justice, the Ferguson Police Department acted as revenue collection bureau for the city (among other abuses), and they exacted their toll almost exclusively from African-Americans. Do you regard that as an example of institutional racism, and do you think this behavior is isolated to this St. Louis suburb?

African-American women are five times more likely than whites to have an abortion. Do you think that as a problem?

These and many other tough questions are what most of us think of when pondering matters involving racial disparity. If the average Starbucks barista were compelled to wade into these debates, most of them would resent it. Still others might be itching for a fight with strangers over their personal racial hobbyhorse. Only a minority are likely both prepared and eager to have a nuanced conversation with their customers about race, and it’s a virtual guarantee that their customers would prefer to pass on that opportunity if given the choice.

Of course, this initiative could be a smashing success, and the concept might catch on with the rest of America’s chain restaurants. I, for one, can’t wait to have an extended debate over the unintended consequences of humanitarian interventionism with the Dunkin’ Donuts guy.