Baristas at area Starbucks will begin engaging customers in dialogue about race as part of the Race Together initiative. (Courtesy Photo)

In an attempt to open dialogue on several racially-charged events that have occurred across the nation in recent years, Starbucks began hosting neighborhood forums for customers to vent, ask questions, challenge their own beliefs, and potentially, heal.  Each forum, according to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, provides a respectful, if not emotional, exchange among attendees.

“Each voice offered insight into the divisive role unconscious bias plays in our society, and the role empathy can play to bridge those divides. In most of the cities we visited, we also met with senior police leaders to hear their concerns and share what we were learning,” said Schultz.

“At Starbucks, we felt a responsibility to act. We called our partners (employees) together and invited them to express what they were thinking or feeling.  In forums across the country, people shared personal experiences and ideas about how to move our country forward. Men and women from backgrounds as diverse as America’s spoke about their childhoods, neighborhoods, fears and hopes.”

Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and a member of Starbucks Coffee Company’s Board of Directors, speaks Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at Starbucks’ annual shareholders meeting in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Race Together – an initiative designed by Starbucks and USA Today to stimulate conversation, compassion and action around race in America – kicked off in earnest around the country March 20. Popular figures like financial guru Mellody Hobson encouraged Americans to live “color brave,” rather than color blind by acknowledging when there is a lack of diversity in the boardroom, classroom, or neighborhood.  Others, like rapper-actor Common, applauded Starbucks for demonstrating their capacity to care about the well-being of the people they serve.

Singer and actor Lonnie Rashid Lynn, better known by his stage name Common, speaks Wednesday, March 18, 2015 at Starbucks Coffee Company’s annual shareholders meeting in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

“I always believed that people with power, didn’t care,” said Common.  “I often wondered why corporations make all this money but don’t care about the people in the communities that are supporting them.  Well, I am here to witness that Starbucks is a different type of company.”

In the D.C. metropolitan area, the AFRO visited eight stores throughout the city and found that while customers were willing to entertain discussions about race with baristas, their own biases often made them too uncomfortable for a full conversation.

Complicated by mass re-gentrification that has witnessed an influx of White, urban SINKs (Single Income No Kids) residents, several White Starbucks customers told the AFRO they feared saying the “wrong thing.”   That fear, was shared by many people across racial and socioeconomic lines.

“The problem is that there are a lot of people moving to this area who have never been around this many Blacks, Latinos, or people who are not White,” said Yusef Abdullah, a sedan driver who frequents one Southwest-area Starbucks. “Instead of it being an opportunity for them to learn something new and integrate into a vibrant and multicultural city, there is fear, there is animosity, and there is a desire to hide behind stereotypes rather than interact.”

Abdullah, who immigrated from Sierra Leone, then moved from Northern Virginia to Mount Pleasant, said that it was an experience to which, he too, had to acclimate himself.

“I had fear of Black teens on sight and I am not embarrassed to admit that and my own sons look very much like them.  But I began talking to the people in the Starbucks one day and they were college students.  They were very well-educated, kind, and interesting young Black people,” Abdullah said.  “It is like Dr. King said, we must learn to judge people by their character and not by the stereotypes in our heads.”

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz speaks while photos of coffee cups with #RaceTogether written on them are projected behind him, Wednesday, March 18, 2015, at the coffee company’s annual shareholders meeting in Seattle. Schultz said baristas in U.S. stores will be writing the words on cups served to customers in an effort to improve awareness of race relations. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

However, faced with an enormous amount of anger and resistance on social media, Schultz ended the first phase of his Race Together initiative — having baristas write “Race Together” on the sides of drink cups on March 22.  That phase of the program, which Schultz insists was scheduled to end on the same day will usher in additional Race Together activities in the weeks and months to come. Among them, three additional special sections co-produced with USA TODAY; plans to expand its store footprint in urban communities; and plans to hire 10,000 “opportunity youth” over the next three years.  The dialogues and forums, according to Schultz will continue.

“Our nation is only becoming more diverse. To ignore, dismiss or fail to productively engage our differences is to stifle our collective potential,” Schultz said.  “I am not going to stand here and tell you that Starbucks is going to solve the centuries-old problem of racism in America.  But I am going to tell you that we are going to demonstrate a level of respect, of leadership, and of concern that we can make a difference.”