By any beans necessary

Putting the Starbucks ‘Race Together’ campaign on ice.

The Starbucks Race Together campaign was inherently marred by myopia, write Ortiz and Beydoun [AFP]

Starbucks and racism. Juxtaposing the green mermaid with ongoing racism faced by Black and Brown Americans evokes images of gentrification and rising property values, displacement and urban re-segregation. 

In an effort to rebrand its racial image, Starbucks launched its “Race Together” campaign on March 15. This campaign aimed to convert its ubiquitous cafes into centres for debate and exchange on pressing issues involving race and racism. “Race Together” was inscribed on the cups of Starbucks’ high-priced coffee drinks, seeking to spur discussion on Ferguson and its fallout, the Black Lives Matter movement, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and every and any matter implicating race.     

However, the Race Together campaign was put on ice only a week later. Critics voiced a myriad of concerns with the initiative – spanning from the “absurdity” of having cafe baristas lead conversations on complex race matters, to indictments that the coffee giant sought to commodify race consciousness and conversation as a means to spike profits. 

Racial capitalism

Whether good faith or racial capitalism , Starbucks’ Race Together campaign was inherently marred by a myopia that divorced its own culpability in brewing racial inequality in the US. And particularly, its role in accelerating gentrification in many of America’s urban centres.

This is the flattened discourse on race and racism the Race Together campaign sought to brew. One where baristas, no less, were expected to lead (or mediate) complex conversations that positioned Starbucks as reconciler ...


Extracting itself from the very conversations on race and racism it aspired to curate reflects that Starbucks was invested in a water-downed race discourse – where structural racism, a business model guided by (or complicit in) gentrification, and the rapid displacement of indigents taking place outside of its walls, were taken off of the menu.

Recent events have re-centered conversations on race and racism in the US. Ferguson mobilised a new generation of civil rights activists, and birthed broader grassroots and virtual movements that unapologetically demand racial justice and institutional accountability.

The might of the movement punctured the myth that the US was post-racial, revealing that racism still prevailed within the walls of government institutions and inside the minds of citizens. The racial animus was no longer blatant, but latent. Yet, ever more potent; and for people of colour, as painful as ever.

This movement, which began to mainstream the idea that racism was structurally embedded and just as pervasive in its mutated, latent form, today finds itself interlocked between two ideological foes. The post-race front on the right; and the “racial reconciliation” brigade storming from the left and centre. 

Corporate hipster

Starbucks, the corporate cousin of hipster-chic and limousine liberalism, represents the vanguard of the latter. An actor that sounds like an ally, cleverly deploys familiar buzzwords and images of racial harmony, and even celebrates the fact that 40 percent of its (barista) staff are ” members of a racial minority “.

Yet, Starbucks is either negligent or calculating in overlooking the fact that only 16 percent of its executives are people of colour. Furthermore, and more nefariously, Starbucks is hush about the destructive role its prolific expansion has had on indigent and of colour communities in Brooklyn, Oakland, and thousands of cities beyond and in between.

This is the flattened discourse on race and racism the Race Together campaign sought to brew. One where baristas, no less, were expected to lead (or mediate) complex conversations that positioned Starbucks as reconciler – instead of a root cause – of the racial injustice and violence in America’s urban spaces. A dangerous framework that not only frees Starbucks from culpability, but re-caricatures racism as an obstacle to the “American Dream” that can be lifted through interpersonal ” relationships and understanding ” – instead of a deeply ingrained and pervasive system that requires structural dismantling. 

Racial reconciliation rhetoric is not only being championed by whites or corporations. Many prominent people of colour, like rapper/actor Common, are also pushing this narrative forward. On the Jon Stewart Show, Common stated that racism can be cured ” if Blacks extend a hand of love ” to Whites. Common’s loving hand, if applied beyond a Black/White binary, would presumptively apply to Latinos, Native Americans, Asians Americans, and other communities of colour.

Some 40 percent of Starbucks' baristas are members of a racial minority [REUTERS]
Some 40 percent of Starbucks’ baristas are members of a racial minority [REUTERS]


This position diverts emphasis on racism as institutional and entrenched, and more nefariously, places the burden on “Blacks” and people of colour to solve or resolve racial inequity. Those unwilling to reconcile or race together will likely be deemed agitators, militants, or in speak adopted from the right, reverse-racists. 

If the Race Together campaign and Common’s nonsense are any indication, the “racial reconciliation” discourse emerging from the left and center may be a more a far more daunting foe than proponents of “post-race America”. While outfitted differently, post-racialism and racial reconciliation are built upon the twin fiction that racial groups are similarly situated, and racism is perpetuated by the deviant acts of persons instead of the regimented processes of structures.    

Churning these fictions into sellable slogans was the principal aim of the Starbuck’s Race Together Campaign. Witty yet watered-down jingles to be written on millions of cups filled in its 11,000 nationwide stores. And subsequently, inscribed onto the millions of minds drinking these messages up. By any beans necessary.

After only one week, and a barrage of criticism and well-founded skepticism, Starbucks put its “Race Together” cup campaign on ice. Just in time for spring. 

Gabriela Ortiz is a Detroit-based activist and healthcare professional. She is also a student at Wayne State University. 

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.