Next up: let’s teach toddlers how to fly planes

Siva Vaidhyanathan reminded us of this thing he wrote four years ago about Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz, who has apparently announced that he’s running for president ffs.

The next time you order one of those faux-Italian-named sweetened coffee drinks at a Starbucks store, you are likely to receive a cup with the hash-tagged words “Race Together” written on it, just above your misspelled name. If you ask the Starbucks employee what it’s about, she or he will tell you that it’s part of a new corporate initiative to inspire customers to discuss racial issues with employees and among themselves.

Dear god. Why would I want to do that? Why would anyone?

Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz is no doubt sincere about his belief in Starbucks as a site and his employees as facilitators of measured deliberation about the legacies of 400 years of slavery, segregation, violence, and migration. But his commitment rests on the naïve arrogance of privilege.

Along with, I’m guessing, a generous helping of vanity.

“What can we do to create more empathy, more compassion, more understanding?,” Shultz asked his employees this week (the company calls them “partners” to mask the nature of the labor-management relationship). “Perhaps we could do something that could be catalytic for the country.”

While making hot drinks from combinations of coffee and sweet syrups, or making change at the cash register. I don’t think so.

All over the United States, teachers, clergy, police officers, and community activists have always fostered carefully moderated conversations about race. In communities large and small, these conversations have had modest but largely local effects. Even after years of experience and deep training in facilitating such discussions, those who run them don’t necessarily find them easy or comfortable. In fact, the less comfortable the discussions are, the more good they might do.

Schultz has expressed no recognition of these longstanding efforts and conversations that hard-working professionals have been pursuing through the public sector and houses of worship. He seems to think that Starbucks should fill some vacuum he perceives in American public life. In doing so, he overestimates the centrality of a corporate chain of overpriced coffee shops to that civic experience.

Which is putting it mildly. Teachers, clergy, police officers, and community activists all get some training or education in the field, especially if they’re going to be fostering conversations on it. Baristas, not so much. It’s of course possible that some or many baristas have deep experience and education on racial issues, but they don’t all have it because that’s a major part of their job.

But if he thinks his employees somehow magically know how to facilitate conversations on racial issues, no wonder he thinks he somehow magically knows how to be president.

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