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Starbucks Faces Criticism Over 'Race Together' Campaign

DON GONYEA, HOST:

There's been a lot of talk this week about what's appropriate to talk about with your coffee - not over coffee, but while you're waiting at Starbucks for your drink. The company launched an initiative this week to promote a national conversation about race. Social media erupted after the announcement. Alexandra Starr of NPR's Code Switch team found that some patrons say the idea is thought-provoking.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Rico Ferrer, who works in film production, is a regular at a Starbucks in the iconic African American neighborhood of Harlem. He goes out for coffee a lot.

RICO FERRER: Three times a day. Yeah. Yeah, it's bad.

STARR: Today, there's a sticker attached to his grande Americano with soy. It says, race together.

FERRER: If I didn't know the idea behind it, I would think that "Race Together" would be us all in the rat race trying to get something done today.

STARR: He wasn't the only Starbucks customer a bit unclear about the company's campaign. Nicole Meyer was buying kettle chips at the counter. She was more focused on the wait than "Race Together."

NICOLE MEYER: I think people are more concerned about getting their coffee versus a sticker.

STARR: The line was long, and baristas, who had yet to undergo the company's "Race Together" training, were occupied with customizing coffee orders. But the "Race Together" sticker did get some customers thinking. Trevor Eaton is white and lives in Harlem. He's bothered by how some police officers treat African American men in the neighborhood. He thinks Starbucks may be on to something.

TREVOR EATON: I - you know, I see the sticker, and I throw it away, but I see things everyday on the street that remind me about - of how far we have to go.

STARR: The "Race Together" initiative was sparked by a town hall meeting Starbucks President Howard Schultz held last December with employees. About 40 percent of them are people of color. In a presentation, Schultz alluded to news about African American men being killed by the police in places like Ferguson. He said the company shouldn't be silent on the issue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOWARD SCHULTZ: If we just keep going about our business and ringing the Starbucks register every day and ignoring this, then I think we're, in a sense, part of the problem.

STARR: This is not the first time Starbucks has engaged in social activism. In 2013 during the government shutdown, some baristas in Washington, D.C., wrote come together on Starbucks cups. This "Race Together" campaign was kicked off last Sunday with a full-page ad in The New York Times.

At a Starbucks in Greenwich Village, Richard Tchen applauds the initiative.

RICHARD TCHEN: I think it's a really good thing. And as an Asian American, I feel like this is really important.

STARR: He says he understands how it feels to be excluded and judged.

TCHEN: I experienced just enough racial prejudice when I was a kid growing up to appreciate what it meant to be accepted by the majority,

STARR: The response on social media hasn't been as positive as Chen's. Starbucks' senior vice president of communications temporarily deleted his Twitter account after fielding scathing criticism. But "Race Together" will continue. This Friday, Starbucks customers will be offered a free insert the company co-produced with USA Today about the campaign. Starbucks will see how customers react to the invitation to talk about race over coffee. Alexandra Starr, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.