Starbucks, the corporation, is still catching a fair amount of grief over its recently terminated Race Together campaign. Conceived in the aftermath of American racial strife in locations like Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York, the campaign encouraged Starbucks baristas to place Race Together stickers on paper coffee cups, and to write the slogan on various customer products.
Race Together? What does that mean? Well, according to CEO Howard Schultz, the corporation introduced that phrase because it wanted to make a public statement in support of racial diversity and equality. The campaign extended a number of internal human resource initiatives to promote dialogue that raises racial consciousness within the firm.
Perhaps predictably, the Race Together campaign drew a fair amount of ridicule from critics who asserted that corporations should refrain from engaging in the types of social conversations that human beings share with each other, and should focus instead on selling products and services to customers. But such critics may not have noticed the continuing evolution of the American corporation.
Starbucks, after all, has been engaging in discussions about social issues since its inception. Beginning in 1988, long before the Affordable Care Act required businesses to offer health insurance to full time employees, Starbucks has provided medical coverage to both part time and full time workers. And the firm has always conceptualized its coffee bars as a “third place” for social gatherings, joining the home and the work place.
More recently, the Supreme Court of the United States has declared that corporations like Hobby Lobby possess the human right of religious freedom, and organizations like Citizens United possess the individual right of free speech. That’s why, during a 2012 Presidential election campaign appearance, Republican candidate Mitt Romney famously exclaimed, “Corporations are people, my friend.”
Those court findings haven’t stopped cynics from making light of the Race Together campaign. And perhaps they have a point; after all, it’s possible that serious issues like racial strife cannot be effectively reduced to slogans on coffee cups.
Nevertheless, people who criticize firms for engaging in such discussions may wish to reconsider their presumptions about corporate behavior. After all, just as artificial robotic entities are increasingly engaging in human interactions, legal corporate entities are increasingly doing so as well.