No good deed goes unpunished

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A joint Starbucks/USA Today effort for racial harmony has become a target for scorching criticism.

The campaign was planned in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings last summer and was launched last month.

Part of the effort was the production and distribution of a well written and fact-filled eight-page newspaper-sized supplement that was available in Starbucks stores around the nation and was tucked inside USA Today. Reno Gazette-Journal writer Anjeanette Damon contributed to the supplement.

But Starbucks company rules accompanying the campaign included encouraging baristas to chat with customers about race and having them write “Race Together” on coffee cups, steps which left the effort open to ridicule. Saturday Night Live, editorial cartoonists, and comedians all poked fun at it. One website ran a “How to Talk About Race With Your Starbucks Barista: A Guide,” and NBC posted an essay headlined “So a Black Guy Walks Into a Starbucks …”

“The most ridiculous part of the new campaign,” wrote the Washington Post's Philip Bump, “is that it treats the very real problem of racial bias and tension as, at best, a peg for a marketing gimmick and, at worst, as something that can be waved away by simply thinking about it.”

There was, to be sure, lots of praise. A columnist at Fast Company said the campaign is “an important and courageous initiative that deserves praise, not scorn” and a St. Louis alderman said the “scale of the attempt alone is worth praise.” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said the effort “filled me with shock and awe,” and historian Janus Adams said productive dialogues about race were conducted in the 1960s: “Every place that it can be confronted is the place to confront it.”

But the scorn and satire overwhelmed the praise. It may be awhile before a U.S. corporation tries to contribute to racial dialogue again.