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Can Starbucks Fix Racism With a Message on a Cup?

The chain certainly hopes so.

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A caramel latte from Starbucks may now soon come with a shot of race relations. In partnership with USA Today, the coffee chain launched an initiative this week to engage both employees and customers in discussions about race, which the Washington Post notes is "one of the nation's most polarizing subject."

In a video message (below), CEO Howard Schultz urges employees nationwide to handwrite the phrase "Race Together" — which sounds more like a marathon rally and less like a method to tackle a hot button issue — on cups "to facilitate a conversation between you and our customers." On March 20, USA Today will publish a supplement that includes race relations "conversation starters," including questions like "In the past year, I have been to the home of someone of a different race ___ times."

More details about how the initiative will work will be revealed on Wednesday during Starbucks' shareholder meeting. Until then, many questions remain. Logistically, the initiative is quite challenging: It might prove difficult get into sensitive debates when the morning coffee line is 40 people deep and flat whites need to be made. Plus, are customers expected to write the answer to the supplemental questions on to their cups? How does an employee pick which cup to write "Race Together" on? What if someone doesn't want to participate in the conversation? Regardless, Starbucks is going full speed ahead with its initiative.

"It's an emotional issue. But it is so vitally important to the country."

Starbucks hasn't always had such a positive relationship with race. While 40 percent of Starbucks' 200,000 employees may be "members of a racial minority," according to Fortune, the company has faced lawsuits in the past over discrimination. In 2009, Starbucks agreed to pay a former employee, who is African American, $120,000 after he sued over racist comments made to him by a white co-worker. While they settled with the African American employee, Starbucks said in a statement that they investigated his allegations "and found them without merit."

But can a few words written on a disposable Starbucks cup really make a customer think critically about race? The idea for the "Race Together" program apparently came from the employee forums Schultz created last year. The Washington Post reports that "[the] first was impromptu, inspired by the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the conversations about racial inequality that surrounded them." Schultz notes that it went well, so Starbucks organized more forums in other cities. In the video he adds that at the end of each forum he had employees come up to him and say, "We must do more" regarding race relations. And so he decided to do so, even though it may be a risky financial decision. Fortune writes that Schultz dismisses that "that race was too hot a topic business-wise for Starbucks to tackle": "It's an emotional issue. But it is so vitally important to the country."

While some Starbucks employees may be encouraging of the program, it has already garnered severe backlash. Starbucks' vice president of global communications apparently deleted his Twitter account so that he would not have to engage in a discussion about "Race Together." Others call the initiative "hypocritical" because the majority of Starbucks' upper echelon is white. Some point out that the press images released for the program feature no people of color, and only white hands.

Others add that Starbucks' customer base is a group of people that can afford pricey lattes, and that it's uncomfortable that the company wants to discuss race relations "without addressing gentrification." People have even taken to mocking the campaign on Twitter, tweeting out drink names with racial puns followed by the hashtag "#NewStarbucksDrinks."

That doesn't seem to bother Schultz or Starbucks: The company has a history of taking a very public stance on controversial and political topics. In 2012, Starbucks came out in favor of same-sex marriage. When a shareholder suggested that a boycott of the company inspired by its stance "was hurting sales," Schultz refused to back down. In 2013, the chain also came out against carrying guns into their stores. In an open letter, Schultz requested that customers — even in states with open carry laws — leave their firearms outside of the chain, upsetting many gun owners.

The company has a history of taking a public stance on controversial and political topics.

"Race Together" isn't even the first time Schultz has advocated writing on cups as a way to solve a major issue. During 2012's fiscal cliff standstill in Congress, Schultz urged employees of Washington, DC-area Starbucks to write messages like "come together" next to the names of customers on cups in an attempt to end the standoff.

Like the "Race Together" campaign — where he took out a full page ad in the New York Times Sunday with a tiny caption that says "Shall We Overcome?" — Schultz has also taken out ads for other controversial causes he believes in. In 2011, he bought full-page ads in multiple newspapers "urging the President and Congress to put an end to partisan gridlock." While at the end of the day, Starbucks may not have the ability to change race relations in the country — especially not through messages on a coffee cup — it appears as if that's never going to discourage Schultz from trying.