What Starbucks' #RaceTogether campaign missed

Starbucks' "Race Together" initiative sought to help spark a dialogue on race.

Story highlights

  • Response mostly negative after Starbucks launches initiative to talk about race relations
  • Dean Obeidallah: Starbucks might not be best place, but how do we start a talk about race?

Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM's weekly program "The Dean Obeidallah Show." He is a columnist for The Daily Beast and editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report. He's also the co-director of the documentary "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter: @TheDeansreport. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Starbucks charges more than $5 for a large ("venti" in Starbucks speak) Caramel Frappuccino, yet no one bats an eye. But when the CEO of Starbucks announced a plan he hoped would ease racial tensions, the response was immediate outrage!

Dean Obeidallah
This latest controversy started Monday when Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz unveiled a new initiative in which Starbucks baristas would write the words "Race Together" on coffee cups to help spark a dialogue on race. Schultz even took out full-page ads in The New York Times and USA Today touting this effort.
Twitter immediately lit up with a flurry of angry tweets -- apparently from people who have consumed far too much caffeine. Surprisingly, though, the backlash came from all sides. One self-described conservative tweeted this:
    A person who noted her support of progressive causes in her Twitter profile tweeted:
    Even people in the middle expressed scorn with tweets such as:
    I, on the other hand, applaud Schultz's efforts, at least in theory. As Schultz correctly stated when discussing the genesis for "Race Together," "If we just keep going about our business ... and ignoring this (racial issue), then I think we are, in a sense, part of the problem."
    Sure, I also see some logistical problems with the "get your iced Mocha Frappuccino with a shot of racial tolerance" approach. First, I live in New York City, where New Yorkers barely have the patience to wait for a cup of plain old coffee to be poured let alone stand in line longer while people engage in a nuanced discourse on race.
    I can envision awkward situations where the baristas ask a customer, "So how do you want your coffee?" to which the customer responds, "Black." For some reason saying "black" in the context of this program could feel uncomfortable. Next thing you know, Starbucks will have to coin politically correct terms for "black" coffee.
    And as a practical matter, only 40% of Starbucks employees are minorities. Consequently, in most Starbucks, the conversation about racial tolerance will between be between two white people.
    But let's put those issues aside. The swift and angry backlash against Schultz's idea proves once again that not only don't we live in a post-racial America, we live in a hyper-racial one. In fact, a recent CNN/ORC poll found 40% of Americans believe racial relations have become worse during the six years Barack Obama has been in the White House.
    It's strikingly obvious that if we are going to improve this situation, we need to have a candid and brutally honest discussion about the underlying factors contributing to racism, the lack of empathy for people of other races, etc. And that's simply what Starbucks' "Race Together" stated goal is: "to stimulate conversation, compassion and positive action regarding race in America."
    Starbucks' senior vice president of communications, Corey duBrowa, deleted his Twitter account Monday after "feeling personally attacked in a cascade of negativity" and being "overwhelmed by the volume and tenor of the discussion" in response to "Race Together."
    But duBrowa was back on Twitter on Tuesday night. Why? Because he truly believed in "the power of meaningful, civil, thoughtful, respectful open conversation."
    DuBrowa's reaction may just be a teachable moment on discussing race. It's truly not an easy topic to broach. The initial response by some, like duBrowa, may be to shut down when racial discussions become uncomfortable. But then, hopefully like duBrowa did later, the conversation can be rejoined within a framework that's respectful to all involved.
    But to be blunt, one of the biggest obstacles in even starting this conversation is that most white Americans don't want to discuss race, as polls have confirmed. For example, after the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, didn't indict police Officer Darren Wilson in the killing of teenager Michael Brown, a poll found that 80% of blacks felt that the shooting raised important issues about race that needed to be discussed. How many white people agreed? Only 37%.
    And personally I have seen some white friends become defensive when race issues are raised. Why? Because many view it as an accusation that they are somehow racist (or at least complicit in racism) as opposed to a starting point for a productive conversation.
    The question is how can we begin that talk about race that our nation desperately needs to have? True, the line at Starbucks might not be the best place. But it has to start somewhere if we are going to close the racial gap that many, including myself, feel is growing.