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The Washington Post has a piece this morning that purports to explain the social and business logic behind Starbucks' new "Race Together" campaign, which encouraged baristas to write those words on coffee cups and engage with customers in conversations about the nation's racial tensions.

The campaign, the story notes, was described by Starbucks' official communications as being the singular brainchild of CEO Howard Schultz, but "the company's marketing of Schultz as America's thought leader on race — especially attached to a campaign that was quickly being called self-serving and oversimplified — struck many as strangely reverent, if not tone-deaf.

"Kate Taylor, a writer for Entrepreneur, wrote the 'one voice' line painted Schultz 'as a visionary progressive for daring to discuss race — something others, especially people of color, haven't exactly been silent on in recent months or the last couple centuries'."

The Post continues: "Schultz has built a reputation by inserting himself at the center of some of the country's most intractable debates. He has asked customers not to bring guns into the company's omnipresent cafes. In 2013, when an investor complained about the coffee king's support of a same-sex marriage bill, Schultz told him he was free to sell his shares and invest somewhere else.

"Schultz's heart-on-his-sleeve progressivism has helped to elevate him as a warm paragon of corporate responsibility: One of his stated mantras is 'Don't be a bystander.' But it has also proven to be a shrewd business tactic, serving to humanize Starbucks' world-spanning cafe empire, which through its ubiquity has become an icon of American corporate imperialism."

Schultz put it this way in an interview with "60 Minutes": "We're not in the business of filling bellies. We're in the business of filling souls."

The Post writes that "Schultz' reputation for conscious capitalism resembles that of another billionaire who helms a beloved West Coast mega-firm: Apple chief executive Tim Cook, who has loudly supported workplace equality and fought against gay and lesbian discrimination. Both men have helped rewrite the traditional corporate playbook, which long advised dodging touchy topics in an attempt to protect the bottom line.

"When Starbucks has been portrayed in unflattering light - as it was last year, when a New York Times story highlighted the chaotic life and volatile schedule of a young barista - Schultz has stepped into the position of the monolithic firm's corporate conscience. The story, he told the Seattle Times, had led the firm to a bit of soul-searching, adding, 'We are better than that, and we care more'."

The "Race Together" campaign, the story notes, "marks perhaps Schultz's thorniest campaign to date. Many have panned the effort as a cursory and awkward awareness campaign little prepared to heal one of the country's deepest wounds." And "critics were also quick to point out that, though 40 percent of the company’s baristas are minorities, the leadership team Schultz is at the head of is overwhelmingly white."
KC's View:
This remains one of the most fascinating stories of the week. Last night, a little before 9, I got a call from my 88-year-old father, who wanted to know what I thought about the Starbucks campaign. (He's not very good on the computer, so he does not often read MNB.) We chatted about it, and I was surprised when my dad - who would never be described as politically progressive - said that he admired what Starbucks and Schultz were doing.

I also got an email yesterday from one of my favorite people, Robin Russell, who wanted to challenge my thinking about this issue:

It seems like a lot of the comments you’ve received about the Race Together campaign are critical or negative.  I think most people agree in principle that tolerance is a good thing, and would privately say that racism is still a problem.  Talking about it openly exposes it to the light of day - and what better place than the neighborhood coffee shop?  Especially when race issues are at the forefront of national news?

Baristas are encouraged to talk about the issue - and even with corporate permission some will be afraid to be honest - but it’s not a requirement.  So why isn’t that a good thing?  Look at how the gay rights issue transformed from undercover to wide acceptance in a few years!  Howard Schultz may have a Messiah complex, but as a Starbucks shareholder and a U.S. citizen, I’d give him an A for effort AND results.

Fair enough.

Between talking to my dad and listening to Robin, I have to say that I'm re-evaluating my position on the Starbucks campaign. I still worry about baristas ill-equipped to have this conversation getting into all sorts of trouble by engaging with the wrong person about the wrong specific.

But while I'm concerned that maybe Schultz has gone a bridge too far with this specific campaign, that's not to suggest that the bridge is not worth taking. Robin's right - the neighborhood coffee shop is a good place for this conversation take place. And while I may have concerns about messiah complexes and whether this initiative has been thought-through to the extent that it should have, maybe the world needs more CEOs who tilt at windmills.

There are so many headlines and stories about racial issues these days that it sometimes is hard to believe we're living in 2015. But as Cervantes wrote in "Don Quixote," "Neither good nor evil can last for ever; and so it follows that as evil has lasted a long time, good must now be close at hand.”

We can hope.