The announcement from Starbucks this week that it wants to start a national dialogue about race relations, and its launching of a program to egg this on by decorating its cups with the call to "Race Together," is now taking off in ways the company likely didn't predict.
The campaign from the international coffee chain — now ubiquitous in white and wealthy neighborhoods, and often a sign of encroaching gentrification when it emerges in others — notes that talking race is "worth a little discomfort."
And the public is giving it just that — with tumultuous backlash and plenty of sarcasm that has already led a Starbucks executive to leave Twitter.
On Tuesday, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who is white, publicly released a six-minute video featuring himself talking about the initiative to the company's partners.
"Take it personal, because it's important to the person next to you, who might be different than you but doesn't have the same chance, the same opportunity, and for that matter may feel a sense of hopelessness because of the unconscious bias that people have against that person," he said. "That person might be wearing a green apron right next to you."
But if Starbucks really cares about race and racial justice, critics say, it needs to do more than make people chat to a barista about it over coffee, and should take a hard look at its own contribution to the country's growing inequality — which at Starbucks, like everywhere else, falls squarely along racial lines.
Colorlines, a news website published by Race Forward, tried to talk to Starbucks about race at Starbucks — but the company wouldn't engage with them, a reporter said.
"They have not responded to me at all," Aura Bogado, a reporter there, told VICE News. "I don't know why Starbucks didn't respond to me, but when Colorlines, which is the news site where race matters, reaches out to a corporation that says that it wants workers to talk about race, it might be a good idea to respond. That silence is really troubling."
Bogado wanted to ask Starbucks about racial and pay diversity at its executive levels, all the way down to the coffee bars. Instead she crunched the numbers herself from Starbucks data, and found that 16 percent of the company's top leaders — and 40 percent of its hourly workers — are are people of color. About 65 percent of Starbucks hourly workers are women.
At a salary of $21 million per year, Schultz makes about $10,000 an hour. Starbucks baristas make on average twice that — annually.
"If Starbucks really wants to advance racial justice, they need to look at their labor practices, and not just their wages but also their anti-union ban," Irene Tung, a senior policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, told VICE News. "I don't want to be so cynical as to say that starting this conversation about race was just a PR ploy, but if they really, truly care about racial justice, they have to move beyond just talking about race."
Tung said the initiative is actually commendable, but that Starbucks has been "notoriously" anti-union — firing activists and vocally pressuring employees not to organize.
In one instance, in 2005, Starbucks fired Joe Agins Jr., a barista and union organizer, after a scuffle with a manager. But Argins said he was fired because he was a prominent supporter of efforts to unionize Starbucks workers. Last year, the National Labor Relations Board agreed with him and said he should get his job back. In another case, in 2006, Starbucks fired Daniel Goss, after an investigation into his participation at a union rally in support of a fellow barista.
"In terms of racial justice, it's very well documented that unionization has really been a key driver in reducing the pay equity gap in this country," Tung said. "Raising wages for low-wage workers is really one of the fundamental racial justice issues of our time."
Food and drink service workers are some of the lowest paid among low-wage workers, and fast food workers, in particular, have been organizing over the last few years, demanding the right to form a union and a $15 per hour minimum wage. The fact that so many low-wage workers are people of color makes racial justice and economic equality inseparable issues, critics say.
"Starbucks needs to be thinking about itself as an employer of people of color, and needs to think about what that means," Tung said. "They have an opportunity, if they care about this issue, to recognize that raising wages has to be the foundation of any effort to raise social justice, at Starbucks, or anywhere in the country."
Starbucks didn't respond to questions from VICE News about its pyramidal diversity, pay gap, and what the company is doing to advance greater racial diversity and pay equity within its ranks. The company wouldn't put someone on the phone with VICE News, but instead emailed a statement.
"What we clearly heard from partners at the open forums we held on race earlier this year was that they wanted Starbucks to move beyond discussion and take action," a spokeswoman wrote. "What you're seeing in our stores this week is the first part of that action, and of course, we are listening to our partners' and customers' points of view."
Starbucks also discussed the topic at its shareholder meeting on Wednesday, which featured African-American Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Common.
The mostly white executives and largely black and brown base of Starbucks workers is hardly unique in the industry, but Bogado notes that "those other companies are not the ones that are saying we want to lead this conversation about race."
"I think that there's a really big difference between when white folks want to talk about race, which ostensibly includes listening to people of color and talking to them, and when white folks want to shape and control the conversation about race," she added.
If baristas are going to be the ones making the company's race conversation happen, she added, they should at least get compensated for it.
"It's hard to put the conversation on the baristas, they may be paid better than in other places, but you try working in New York for $20,000 a year. It's tough," she said. "And to also expect these people to be both experts and facilitating the conversation, it seems that they should be paid more than $10 an hour for that alone."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi