Starbucks is an immensely successful company at least in part because they appeal to a supposedly hip customer base that’s willing to pay more for a cup of coffee than a gallon of gasoline – because they figure Starbucks is cool and trendy and if they buy their over-priced coffee they must be cool and trendy too.
I went to a Starbucks once in Moscow and couldn’t figure out how to order a small cup of coffee. No, the menu wasn’t in Russian. It was in Starbucks, where a small was a “tall” and a medium was a “grande” and a large was a “venti.” I went in for coffee and came out with a headache.
Now Starbucks and its founder Howard Schultz have come up with a new cool and trendy idea – an idea, like all their other ideas, that’s designed to show how cool and trendy they are.
They want their baristas (as their servers are called) to engage customers in conversations about … race.
Even if you’re high on a double dose of caffeine you can’t think this is a good idea.
Maybe it’s because I’m not cool and trendy (by Starbuck standards anyway) but I'm pretty sure there’s really only one conversation about race a cool and trendy company like Starbucks is looking for. The kind of conversation that boils down to “Isn’t it a shame how we treat black people in America.” Howard Schultz has gone on TV and said pretty much just that.
I used to be one of those naïve souls who also wanted a conversation about race in America. But at some point I realized that I’d rather have a conversation about manhole covers in America than race. Conversations about race inevitably go nowhere. Neither side really listens to the other side. And I suspect, it’ll be more of the same with the Starbucks initiative.
The problem is the kind of drivel that passes for a serious conversation about race has as much kick as a Cinnamon Dolce Latte, which, in case you’re interested, cost $4.65 for the venti size at Starbucks. The baristas may know how to pour expensive coffee into a cup, but I’m guessing they’re not equipped to deal with anything resembling a no-holds-barred conversation about race.
Here’s the conversation I can envision if the Starbucks guy or gal asked me what I thought about race in America:
“America has a nasty history when it comes to race,” I’d say. “Slavery was downright evil. And I don’t want to hear about how we can’t judge behavior in the 1700s and 1800s by today’s standards. Sometimes you can. Slavery was wrong then and everybody knew it.”
Then I’d say, “Segregation was another stain on our history.”
After that, I’d go where no sensible person should go: to the kind of stuff about race that makes people nervous and is likely to cause cool and trendy millennial baristas to think you’re a hopeless bigot.
“But you know what,” I’d go on against my better judgment, “the slaveholders aren’t coming back to make things right. And the bigots still walking our streets have no interest in making things right. So the victims of slavery and segregation have to take the lead in making things right.”
About now the barista is dialing 911. But I’m not deterred. I’m too stupid for that. So I say, “But too many of African-Americans aren’t taking the lead to make things right. The out-of-wedlock birth rate in black America is over 70 percent. That is unacceptable behavior. Kids born to young girls grow up with the odds stacked against them.”
I get the impression that the barista is wondering why a smart guy like his boss Mr. Schultz ever came up with this crazy idea to engage customers on such a touchy subject as race.
“Too many black kids drop out of high school,” I say. "And they make fun of other black kids who try to do well in school. They say, "You actin' white.' Like that's a bad thing. And too many black kids become criminals and hurt other black kids.”
Then, a shot across the barista bow: “If it makes liberals – (I don’t say “like you” but he knows who I’m talking about) -- feel better to trace this back to slavery, wonderful. But that’s not going to help anybody … today!”
I’m on a roll. Why stop now?
“The reason a disproportionate number of African-Americans are not doing well,” I say even though I think at this point I’m talking to myself, “is because of dysfunctional behavior. What do you think about that, Mr. Barista?”
Then another thought pops into my head.
“Oh yeah, I’m tired of hearing about how ‘black lives matter,’” I say. “Of course they do. All lives matter. But they matter not only when a white cop shoots a black kid who should not have resisted arrest in the first place. It matters too when black thugs kill innocent black kids. But I don’t see any marches about that. Don’t those black lives matter?”
The people in line behind me aren’t any more amused than the barista. It's morning and they want their fix. So I wrap it up.
“I can’t go into black neighborhoods and preach the gospel of personal responsibility and good behavior. No one’s going to listen to me, a white guy. But we have a black president who is charismatic. He could do the preaching. But except for a few occasions, he won’t do it.
“Why not? What if nobody listens? What if even the most important man in the free world – a black man – can’t change the behavior? Then he’d look like he failed. And we can’t have that, can we? Better to blame bad cops and bad teachers and bad society in general than to hold people accountable for their behavior.”
At this point, the barista’s eyes are rolling around in his head. I detect foam on his mouth. He looks like he’s about to pass out. Surely he wishes he didn’t show up for work this morning. I think I hear him whisper to himself, “Why couldn’t I have gotten lucky and been hit by a truck on my way to work?” But I could be wrong. He might have said "bus" not"truck."
I start to order a venti-size Caramel Macchiato, but reconsider. I’m low on gas and I can use the money to buy a couple of gallons. To go to Dunkin’ Donuts.