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Starbucks says oops: No more “Race Together” on coffee cups

March 22, 2015, 11:03 PM UTC

Less than a week after Starbucks (SBUX) announced its ambitious “Race Together” initiative aimed at stoking dialog about the hot-button issue, the coffee company is ending a key part of the program.

As of Sunday, baristas will no longer be writing the words “Race Together” (or placing stickers) on cups they hand customers as a signal to start a chat about one of the most polarizing issues in American life, an effort meant as a centerpiece for the broader and longer term program but one widely ridiculed on social meeting after it was announced last week.

“While there has been criticism of the initiative — and I know this hasn’t been easy for any of you — let me assure you that we didn’t expect universal praise,” CEO Howard Schultz said in a letter to employees on Sunday.

Many commentators in the media and members of the public mocked the program via Twitter and Facebook, not always politely wondering whether this was the best way to debate a sensitive issue — and questioning whether this would slow service inside Starbucks’ restaurants.

The initiative followed several months of consultations with employees that started in December, as a result of protests boiling over in several U.S. cities after grand juries declined to indict white police officers in the killings of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and 43-year-old Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y.

Schultz had met with almost 2,000 Starbucks employees since then in cities hit most directly by racial tension and anti-police brutality protests, including Oakland, St. Louis, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, plus Seattle, where Starbucks is based.

Aware of what a powder keg the issue of race is, Starbucks baristas were under no obligation to engage with customers on the topic.

Still, Starbucks plans to continue with most aspects of the “Race Together” project. Among other efforts, Starbucks will produce three more special inserts sections with USA TODAY that it has been giving away for free in its stores since Friday. The goal, Starbucks says, is simply to foster discussion and an exchange of ideas.

“An issue as tough as racial and ethnic inequality requires risk-taking and tough-minded action. And let me reassure you that our conviction and commitment to the notion of equality and opportunity for all has never been stronger,” Schultz said in his latest note to staff.