Racism Brews Hotter While Too Many of Us Sip Our Coffee in Silence

Starbucks Corp.'s latest menu item -- the nonfat latte, Frappuccino, or other Starbucks fare with a side order of race relations -- didn't get the reception it deserves. On Sunday, the company announced that baristas no longer would be asked to write the phrase "Race Together" on coffee cups to encourage conversations about race.

I think that's a shame. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has identified the nation's most pressing social issue and one of its key economic indicators. I applaud him for feeling so strongly about the need for public dialogue about race that he encouraged his employees to promote it.

I was not surprised that this coffee talk plan hit a sour note, however. Its execution was awkward. Starbucks is more take-out than sit-down; most customers are out the door with their coffee as soon as they get it. Thoughtful conversations about racism take time. Employees who pour the coffee, having received no special training, might have been as unprepared to have these conversations as caffeine- and sleep-deprived customers apparently were to respond. In a thoughtful piece, TIME columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said he feared violence might result.

But the cool and seemingly unequivocal rejection of Mr. Schultz's campaign made sense to me for another reason.

As a black American, I have a hard-enough time raising the subject with friends at dinner. "Why," they sometimes ask me, "do you steer discussions towards issues of race?" If friends are uncomfortable talking about race with each other around a table -- when we are all seated, relaxed and sipping wine -- then you can bet relative strangers rushing through a coffee shop wouldn't be crazy about it. In his book Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat From Racial Equity, author Tim Wise cites research suggesting that 60 percent of white families do not discuss race at home.

The truth is that there is a lot for all of us to talk about -- and more piles on our plate every day.

Incidents of racial hatred are popping up at college fraternities throughout the country. The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma was removed from campus after video of a racist chant went viral. Last week, the national Pi Kappa Phi fraternity put its North Carolina State University chapter on interim suspension after an NCSU notebook with references to lynching and racial epithets was found at a local restaurant.

Young black men continue to suffer under vestiges of "stop and frisk" policing. Black and brown students are suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white counterparts. White students tend to succeed in school while their black classmates do not, even in such progressive states as Connecticut, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Exacerbating educational opportunity is the fact that urban schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1970s, limiting opportunity for cross-racial and cross-cultural conversations.

The adult world is no kinder. Police officers recently were suspended for racist remarks about our dynamic and beautiful first family. Politics increasingly has become a racial sport. In Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, author Ian Haney López writes:

[The Republican Party] is now essentially defined by race: it is almost exclusively supported by and composed of whites. In the 2012 presidential election, 88 percent of the voters who pulled the lever for the GOP candidate were white. That means that whites made up roughly nine out of every ten persons who threw in with Mitt Romney. Even more startling, among state-level elected Republican officials nationwide, 98 percent are white.

"Equal opportunity for all" is a founding principle of our country. Yet our biases and stereotypes anchor our beliefs and color our perceptions in a general process that Michael Shermer, in The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, calls "motivated reasoning."

If this is reality, then maybe random conversations about race can't be meaningful. Maybe we can't expect relative strangers in a busy coffee shop to connect over the subject.

But I tire of all the reasons we can't make progress on this issue. People don't want to talk about race, period, not with strangers, not with friends, not over dinner. It's as if we won't acknowledge it. We don't want to question why African Americans represent 12 percent of our population but 40 percent of those incarcerated in our nation's prisons. We're not curious why nearly 46 percent of black children under age 6 live in poverty, compared with only 14.5 percent of white children. We don't find it odd that the black unemployment rate is twice to three times that of whites -- and has been since records first were kept in 1972.

So if not at home, school or our local coffee shop, then where should discussions about race happen?

For its part, Starbucks said it plans to sponsor newspaper and community forums on the issue and expand its footprint in urban areas, among other initiatives. These are welcome, but the question is one all Americans need to answer.

In the meantime, I applaud Starbucks for starting a courageous conversation and giving us food for thought along with our coffee.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.