Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
#RaceTogether is ridiculous. The company should let its record of giving meaningful opportunities to minorities stand alone.
Howard Schultz, the chief executive of every Starbucks store on the planet, committed a grave error when he rolled out the company's new #RaceTogether campaign. In the hours since, he's watched his mistake compound with interest. (The company is continuing its push, however, with a USA Today-partnered insert set for release Friday.)
Folks on social media poked fun at the ridiculousness of solving racial issues via coffee, coining a bunch of hilarious #NewStarbucksDrinks (thank you, @LaXicanista, for "Latte from a Birmingham Jail"). Tressie McMillan Cottom picked apart the fundamental flaws in the plan with surgical precision in her essay "Starbucks Wants to Talk to You About Race. But Does It Want to Talk to You About Racism?"
An awkward exchange between CBS journalist Nancy Giles and producer Jay Smooth during an All In With Chris Hayes segment on the subject only proved how far south an earnest but tone-deaf discussion about race could turn. And as if on cue, Instagram took the PR catastrophe and took it from tall to trenta.
Now that the #RaceTogether is a conversation about Starbucks and racism, the company appears less interested in conducting it. Corey DuBrowa, senior vice president for communications, deleted his Twitter account when the milk got too frothy, so to speak (he's since returned).
It's too bad the conversation—this latter one, about Starbucks and race—has gone off the rails entirely. While critics are correct to note that the company is handling racism about as well as it spells its customers names, Starbucks has some ground to stand on as a friend to the black community.
Fortune reports that some 40 percent of the company's 200,000 employees are minorities. A case study published last year in the International Journal of Learning & Development finds that Starbucks does much better than many top employers at promoting women and minority staffers to the highest roles in the company. According to the report, 24 percent of corporate officers are women. At the executive level (vice president and above), women represent 31 percent of the company, and people of color represent 13 percent.
Compare that with figures from other major employers. The averages for other Fortune 500 companies are 15 percent for women and 3 to 5 percent for minorities, according to the report. The difference is appreciable.
Starbucks has long taken knocks for being an early warning sign of gentrification in any neighborhood a store pops up in. There's some truth to that: The company has long been an engine for inner-city jobs. For example, Urban Coffee Opportunities played a significant role in Earvin "Magic" Johnson's plan to bring jobs to inner-city blacks. The New York Times Magazine profiled Magic the businessman in 2000, explaining his work:
Johnson employs roughly 3,000 people who live in inner-city neighborhoods across the country. Over the next two hours, as Johnson sips herbal tea and tirelessly plays host, he talks about the satisfaction of employing people. In his recent venture in Harlem, Johnson's multiplex, which opened in July, and the Harlem USA mall it is part of, have sparked a renaissance of 125th Street. Last summer, after the Harlem theater hired 100 people from the 5,000 who had waited in line to apply, Johnson decided that he wanted his new staff to go through four weeks of rigorous training. On opening day, dozens of young men and women stood before him in pressed uniforms. "Just looking at those faces, the hope and pride," he says, remembering the scene, "that may have been the best moment of my life, right there."
[ . . . ]
In the last year, Johnson has taken part in a joint venture with Starbucks to create more than 20 Starbucks shops. All perform in the top five in their respective regions; the South Central store, for example, where lines snake out the door on weekend nights, is among the most profitable of Los Angeles's 400-odd stores.
Johnson went on to open more than 100 Starbucks stores via Urban Coffee Opportunities in cities across the country before he dipped out of the franchise game in 2010. Starbucks bought out his interest.
Culturally, Starbucks products represent excess, status, high incomes, and other markers that we tend to associate broadly and comically—and lazily—with whiteness. Venti skinny pumpkin spice latte means whiteness in this shorthand. The ham-fisted start to this #RaceTogether campaign is going to make for a lively Saturday Night Live sketch.
All the "flat white" jokes aside, Starbucks can boast a decent record as an employer of minorities. (And as a strong partner in supplier diversity.) But if the company really wants to show that it believes that black lives matter—I think that's the impetus behind this fumbling public gesture, anyway—the company can do that by continuing to open stores where jobs are badly lacking and giving those jobs to the people who need them most.
Let's be real: Starbucks should make coffee and sell it to people. Starbucks isn't the Department of Justice. But what the company can do is build upon and improve its record as a company that gives jobs, support, and meaningful opportunity to women and people of color—and let that stand alone.