April 14, 2015

Why are we beating up Starbucks?

(CNN) There is a controversy brewing about Starbucks and its new "Race Together" campaign. The ubiquitous coffee shop company was mocked for its decision to have its employees write the words "race together" on its coffee cups and start a discussion on race.

But what's so bad about that? Shouldn't we commend Starbucks for trying to be good corporate citizen, to walk the talk, as it were?

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced the company's new campaign this week, which he described as "an opportunity to begin to re-examine how we can create a more empathetic and inclusive society." In other words, grab a cup of coffee and let's talk about race.

"We have problems in this country with regard to race and racial inequality," Schultz said in a video to corporate employees. "We believe we're better than this, and we believe the country is better than this. There is a need for compassion, empathy and love towards others." And he has indicated that the new move is not mandatory for its employees.

This is what Schultz calls "conscious capitalism." It is an example of businesses who want to serve the community, get ahead of the curve rather than pander to what they think customers want, and show that they care about something other than getting paid.

Of course, we would be foolish to think that Starbucks or any company would engage in such a strategy separate and apart from a profit motive. After all, the company, like any other money making enterprise, wants to make more money. And capitalism is all about making money. And yet, there are different pathways to getting there, and maybe Starbucks is showing us a new way.

Perhaps you think that their approach is corny, and yes, the company has faced a lot of attacks online for their stance. But the attacks are distracting us from a very important problem, one which many people would rather not discuss, with or without their coffee.

Clearly some people do want to talk about race, and there is a desperate need to confront the issue head on. What we are witnessing as a society is a new movement led by black women and spurred by the killing of black people such as Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride and Eric Garner, John Crawford and Tamir Rice, and many more, whether by police or by armed vigilantes.

People of all colors and persuasions have participated in #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe and #HandsUpDontShoot protests and die-ins across the nation. Race is part of the town hall, the public square. It always has been, but what is different now is that the issue is once again being placed on the front burner.

It only makes sense that actors and players in society, including corporations such as Starbucks, would want to become part of that new dynamic.

At a time when so many corporations are coming under fire for their questionable, exploitative, even deadly business practices, Starbucks is trying to be a responsible corporate citizen and part of the solution.

Corporate America makes a great deal of money, and just as some corporations have benefited historically from slave labor and exploitation, some corporations today attempt to get ahead by cutting corners, underpaying their workers with poverty wages, cheating their customers with bad mortgages or polluting the environment. Meanwhile, other companies take a completely different approach and realize that by giving back to the community, supporting worthwhile causes, and initiating important discussions not only helps their bottom line, but improves society's bottom line.

Of course, we cannot pretend that having a talk about race over coffee will solve America's problems, just as President Obama's "beer summit" over the racial profiling of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates fell short of fully capitalizing on one of those "teachable moments."

Race in the United States is not merely about who likes or who doesn't like you, or who calls you the N-word or does not want to live next to you. Racism is a system of power dynamics and institutions that must be made to change. But these institutions are made of people, and people do have to talk. And drink coffee. And who knows what can happen when people start to talk about race? Maybe they will even think about things in a different way.

So, 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.

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