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Yes, Starbucks Barista, Please Talk to Me About Race

My medium Starbucks light roast sans a "Race Together" message. Will my cup look different on March 20?

My medium Starbucks light roast sans a "Race Together" message. Will my cup look different on March 20?

The Hennepin Avenue Starbucks in Uptown is, on a normal day, a pleasant cross section of the more-diverse-than-it-gets-credit-for neighborhood. Groups of Somali men engage in lively, caffeine- and politics-fueled banter; students are glued to their MacBooks; and office types rush around the way office types will.

So when Starbucks launches its new campaign to engage customers in conversation about race, will the otherwise antiseptically corporate vibe of the shop suddenly transform into an Enlightenment era salon full of civilized discourse?

See also: Starbucks in the crosshairs of gun control debate

The idea is that Starbucks baristas will have the option, as they serve customers, to handwrite the words "Race Together" on coffee cups and start a discussion about race. Not sure where to begin? "Conversation Guides" will be available in the stores, as well as inserted into USA Today newspapers, also available in the store. The Race Together campaign begins officially on March 20.

When I opened my emails this morning, still bleary-eyed from sleep, this sounded like the stupidest thing I had ever heard. Why in the hell would I want to talk race relations with some nubile Millennial stranger? And moreover, why would he want to talk to me? Wouldn't he be more interested in a race to the finish line of his shift so he could make it to band practice in time?

But then I got caffeinated. And the idea became clearer to me: Maybe this is genius.

The last thing Starbucks CEO Harold Schultz needs is more money. Starbucks paid him $28.9 million in total compensation for the 2013 fiscal year. His net worth as of today is $2.6 billion. The company is wildly successful, with over 21,000 stores worldwide. Schultz is credited with much of that success. So now that he knows where his next latte is coming from, and which Italian leather sofa he's going to sit on while he sips it, he can move on to other things besides making money, can't he?

"We have problems in this country with regard to race and racial inequality," Schultz said in a video message to the company's employees this week. "We believe we're better than this, and we believe the country is better than this. There is a need for compassion, empathy, and love towards others."

Compassion, empathy, and love. All things that don't cost a dime, and yet indeed are in short supply. A CEO stumping for them? Radical.

In corporate America, it's acceptable to tout change, but only if it's gonna translate somehow to dollars and cents.

When the tide began to turn on gay marriage, and it became apparent that most states (72 percent to date) would be outlawing bans on gay marriage, even the most mainstream corporations jumped on board: This was an opportunity to make money. Suddenly Tiffany's, Cheerios, Target, and even Coke featured shiny, happy gay couples frolicking and eating Cheerios and drinking Coke and proposing with little blue boxes.

Is gay marriage still a hot button issue in America? Darn tootin' it is. But since it's an opportunity to make money -- lots of it -- corporations are willing to take the chance of offending a few curmudgeons. And in the process, these corporations come across as taking a chance on America.

Two dudes lovin' each other while sharing America's sweetheart Coca-Cola all over the TV didn't draw nearly the vitriol that the Starbuck's campaign has. Why?

Compare corporate America embracing gay marriage to last Christmas season when Black Lives Matter protesters converged on the Mall of America on the biggest shopping day of the year to peacefully protest the high-profile killings of several unarmed black people around the United States over the past handful of years and their effects on current American race relations.

In response to the plans, Mall of America officials lost their shit, shutting down portions of the mall -- about 80 stores inside the mall and several entrances were put on lockdown during the protest. Now 10 of the protest organizers have had charges brought against them, in part due to financial losses incurred by the mall.

Lena Gardner of Black Lives Matter told the Associated Press that the mall's financial losses were not the fault of protesters, that the mall could have instead chosen to welcome her group the same as it's welcomed others to gather in its rotunda to raise awareness about various causes.

The message? Race relations = bad for business.

Sure, maybe the idea to get baristas talking about race is awkward, but is that in part because it flies directly in the face of capitalism? Honest conversations are squicky and where's the money to be made in all of this, anyway?

Will preaching peace, love, and happiness be bad for business? Time will tell. And even if it is, it seems Schultz and Starbucks can probably afford it. He has said publicly that the onus is on companies to actively serve as social stewards to their employees, as well as their communities. Sounds like taking a chance on America to me. He's even coined a term: "conscious capitalism." Consider the sheer reach of Starbucks-- practically one on every major intersection in America-- their platform is an awesome one. Schultz has got America talking about race, whether America likes it or not.

True, putting the onus on baristas might indeed be a stretch. I asked my barista about the campaign, and he chose to remain anonymous while having this to say:

"It's hard to be told what to talk about. This is an important thing to talk about, but I don't know if writing it on coffee cups is the best way to go about it."

Mid-conversation, he dashed off to make a coffee for a fairly impatient customer who seemed to be wondering why we were discussing anything beyond which chocolate I wanted in my mocha.

That could be the biggest challenge. People need their caffeine and they need it now. Race relations may have to wait.

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