Why Starbucks Can't Leave Politics Alone

Starbucks gives up on its "Race Together" initiative, but if history is any indication, this isn't its last gasp of political earnestness.

By Nathan Pippenger

After a tidal wave of mockery, Starbucks’s “Race Together” campaign was officially brought to an end on Sunday by CEO Howard Schultz. This was not the first time (and it is unlikely to be the last) that the company bombards bleary-eyed customers with its earnest political exhortations.

In December 2012 Starbucks declared that it was time for Republicans and Democrats “to come together and compromise to solve the tremendously important, time-sensitive issue to fix the national debt.” To achieve this goal, the company directed baristas to write “Come Together” on coffee cups in the D.C. area. Somehow, this plan didn’t work. (Making matters worse, it was an insult to music as well. “These words express,” wrote Schultz, “the optimism that’s core to the holiday season, to our country’s heritage, and to our Starbucks Mission.” Allow me to suggest that in fact, John Lennon had none of those three things in mind.)

The failure of the “Come Together” initiative apparently left Schultz’s faith in symbolic solutions to structural problems intact. Ditto his company’s self-righteousness. As a Starbucks spokesperson defended the “Race Together” initiative to the New York Times: “Leading change isn’t an easy thing to accomplish.”

This was an unintentionally revealing self-defense. Why does Starbucks see its goal as “leading” social change? Part of the answer lies in its grandiose self-conception. The same spokesperson also told the Times that “our mission is to inspire and nurture the human spirit, one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.” But more important is Schultz and Co.’s apparent belief that social problems are caused largely by a deficit of goodwill. This is a seductive idea insofar as it suggests relatively painless solutions (like a conversation), and a clear leadership role for corporations whose CEOs have an inchoate sense of social obligation.

However well-intentioned its leadership may be, Starbucks has nonetheless consistently promoted facile understandings of America’s problems. A doctor who misdiagnoses your illness is unlikely to recommend the right cure. Why should we expect any different from pundits who think “both parties” are to blame for polarization, or CEOs who think the lack of staged conversations about race is a key obstacle to racial equality? Starbucks actually demonstrated a better grasp of the causes of racism by recently deciding to hire more disadvantaged young people and open more locations in urban neighborhoods. Lack of employment opportunities for racial minorities is a major cause of racial inequality. It also happens to be a problem that Starbucks can help address, without any splashy declarations about “inspiring and nurturing the human spirit.” The human spirit has a proven record of doing just fine without corporate assistance. Selling coffee and providing jobs is enough.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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