Coffee with a side of forced national dialogue

This post originally appeared in the March 21, 2015 edition of the “Wise County Messenger.” Photo found here.

”I’d like a tall cup of coffee, please.”

“Sounds good, sir, and while we’re brewing that for you, would you like to take a couple of minutes out of your day to talk about Ferguson, Mo.? Or the rights of Mexican immigrants? Or how about issuing reparations to Native Americans?”

“No, I’ll just take my coffee, thanks.”

“You sure? I don’t mind talking about race relations with you!”

“No, thank you. I’d like to just pay for my coffee.”

That exchange is exaggerated, but I can only imagine that’s what buying Starbucks coffee might be like in the future after the coffee giant’s CEO, Howard Schultz, launched its latest ad campaign Sunday morning.

The “Race Together” campaign allows any Starbucks barista, at their discretion, to write “Race Together” on a customer’s coffee cup, thereby starting a part of the “national conversation” that we all should be having about race relations.

Because what could possibly go wrong with that?

As it turns out, a lot. Since Schultz took out a full-page ad in the New York Times Sunday, the response has been almost 100 percent negative. Twitter reactions, proving once again that 140 characters is not enough space to have nuanced conversation, ranged from snarky comments to outright bigotry.

But you have to think that Schultz expected this to happen.

What’s interesting about this isn’t that Schultz is speaking his mind on social issues – he’s already done that before with gay rights, veteran rights and gun control laws.

The bigger issue is the fact that we need a “dialogue” in the first place. When someone brings up, say, AIDS in Africa or homelessness in Texas, there’s little conversation and lots of action. We’ve been “talking” about race for years now, and at this point, talking about American race relations is viewed as an action in and of itself.

Granted, discussion leads to action, and that’s always a good thing. And just to play devil’s advocate, most of the “discussion” comes from news stories that tend to be anything but balanced.

At this point, discussing race has become a box to be checked and a way to make people feel good about themselves without following through.

Collectively, America discusses race all the time, but there’s not much done about it.

That’s why I don’t think “Race Together” will work. I give Schultz an “A” for effort, but any more conversation will just be adding to the noise. That is, if there’s any conversation at all.

From the baristas I talked to at the Decatur Starbucks, there hasn’t been a lot of race talk going on here since the ad campaign started.

Maybe that will change. I hope it will lead to action, but I doubt it.

Jake Harris is a reporter for the Messenger.

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