Starbucks brews up controversy with 'Race Together' campaign

Starbucks' move to kick-start a national conversation on race relations — over coffee at its cash registers — has at least ignited a debate over whether the ubiquitous chain has any business leading such a conversation.

Brand experts, meanwhile, wondered if the company's "Race Together" campaign would attract or repel customers.

The Seattle coffee chain this week began encouraging, but not requiring, its baristas to write the words "Race Together" on cups to get its customers talking about race. Its website features photos of the cups held by smiling workers and customers of many races.

The initiative stemmed from a forum in December at company headquarters in Seattle, where employees discussed racial tensions in the United States after police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York.

"If we just keep going about our business and ringing the Starbucks register every day and ignoring this, then I think we are, in a sense, part of the problem," Starbucks Chief Executive Howard Schultz told employees at the videotaped meeting, which was followed by gatherings in Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, New York and St. Louis. Those meetings drew more than 2,000 employees, the company said.

The campaign has drawn sharp criticism online, with many commenting on the company's lack of diversity in hiring and whether employees are equipped to engage in these discussions, among other issues.

Under a tweeted screen-grab of the Starbucks leadership team, dominated by white men, Twitter user @NerdyWonka quipped: "Apparently, in the @Starbucks world, this is what #RaceTogether looks like."

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