Stop slamming Starbucks: Why ‘Race Together’ campaign matters

Can I just get a cup of coffee – hold the rant on race?

This week Starbucks is giving its staff the option to write “Race Together” on its paper cups of coffee. The idea is to ignite coffeehouse crosstalk, conversation even debate on race relations in the era of Ferguson, Trayvon Martin and our first black president.

I’m all for honest debate and especially at a time when 40 percent of Americans say race relations are worse under Barack Obama.

The reaction to Starbucks’ effort reveals why it is so hard to get people to let down their guard and open up about racial attitudes, feelings and experiences.

But so far the reaction to Starbucks’ effort reveals why it is so hard to get people to let down their guard and open up about racial attitudes, feelings and experiences. There are major hurdles here:

Starbucks is being slammed for just trying to start the conversation. The criticism is aimed at its chief executive — “cocooned from reality if this is the action he thinks is called for,” wrote a Washington Post blogger. The criticism is also aimed at Starbucks customers as fools for paying too much for coffee and people who are “snippy, bordering on insufferable” in the words of the same blogger.

And then there are attacks on how Starbucks does its business: “Starbucks pays Ethiopian farmers pennies for coffee beans. They turn around and charges $10 for a Grande latte,” reads one tweet.

Another critic accused the company of engaging in “Slacktivism.”

“The only folks happy about Starbucks baristas discussing race with customers are the suits who run [Starbucks],” tweeted another critic. “Feel-good liberalism at its worst.”

Josh Petri, an editor at Bloomberg Business, tweeted that Starbucks is not the right place to discuss “sensitive cultural topics.”

The smart, cocky cynicism in response to Starbucks’ effort is one big reason it is so hard to get to the good part of a real, informative conversation on any topic, including race relations. It is not only that whites might fear being called racist and tapping into guilty feelings while blacks fear being told they have a chip on their shoulders and play the victim/race card. It is also Hispanics, Asians and recent immigrants biting their tongues about the racial stereotypes they face as they are forced to listen as blacks and whites dominate their limited, two-way, jousting about slavery, its legacy and even “micro-aggressions” of “white privilege.”

No one knows when they might hear an eye-opening insight; hear a compelling thought or an inspiring story. But the cynical pose closes the door to those moments.

After 9/11 when I openly admitted that I get worried when I see someone in Muslim garb walk on an airplane I was not suggesting that all Muslims are terrorists or bad people. Quite the opposite. I was calling for a more honest discussion of race that allows people to recognize and speak about their feelings instead of enforcing a silence that festers into bigotry.

The cynics wanted no part of that kind of that honest conversation.

And the response to Starbucks’ effort to get Americans to think and talk about improving race relations indicates a lot of people don’t want this conversation. They prefer mocking the first step to taking the risky journey.

American’s history of racial pain and progress stands in defiance of the cynics who want to tell people to shut up.

The Civil Rights movement would not have succeeded without conversations in churches. It would not have worked if young people had not been moved to cross racial lines and dance to blues-inspired rock and soul music. Who would have believed that some minds got opened on race by listening to Bob Dylan sing folks songs about social change on the radio?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went into pool halls to talk to people about joining the Montgomery bus boycott.

The movement would not have worked without a wealthy, old white Texan in the White House being so moved by conversations that he stood before Congress to declare that the whole nation needed to “overcome.”

All the marches, sit-ins and freedom rides were intended to force conversations and combat age-old racist attitudes that too many people excused as tradition, convenient and comfortable.

Dr. King decided to hold the Selma to Montgomery march on dusty Southern back roads to make people talk about the lack of voting rights for black people. King knew it would provoke confrontations that would get media attention and provoke conversation. It was this national discomfort that led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

America is in a far different era. It is a sign of the times that 40 percent of Starbucks’ nearly 200,000 workers are minorities.

But even in this new age of a far more diverse America racial progress can only happen when we become more honest, less embarrassed, less content to stay in our comfort zone and snicker at our cynical thoughts.

Attorney General Eric Holder, referring to Americans’ everyday preference for silence on difficult racial issues in 2009, called the U.S. a “nation of cowards.” He urged “frank conversation about the racial matters that continue to divide us.”

He was excoriated for just saying it is good to talk with open hearts about race. Some people say there is too much talk about race but they are really complaining about the demagogues and provocateurs that profit by selling endless chatter to feed racial antagonism and racial fear.

So here is a tip of the coffee cup to a big American corporation, Starbucks, and its wealthy CEO, Howard Schultz, for using their platform to advance the kind of honest conversation that in the tradition of American patriots produces real change and revolution.

Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC’s “The Five,” where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.