Calling out racism in trucking

  • Calling out racism in trucking

    Calling out racism in trucking

    by Freight Waves / Clarissa Hawes
    Members of Black Truckers United discuss discrimination, diversity in the trucking industry

    Michael Ware remembers driving from Oklahoma to northwest Arkansas nearly 16 years ago to apply for a truck driving job.

    In a phone conversation, the owner of the company seemed impressed by Ware’s seven years of experience hauling refrigerated freight, as well as his clean driving record. He invited Ware to come in for a formal interview.

    However, once he arrived at the company’s headquarters, Ware said he was told there was no record of his interview on the schedule. He was also told the owner was out of the office and that the position had already been filled.

    After making the two-hour trip back home, Ware said he looked up the carrier online to see if the position had been filled — it hadn’t. On the carrier’s website, he recognized a photo of the man he had spoken to in the office as the same person who had encouraged him to come in for an interview — he was the owner.

    Ware, 48, a leased owner-operator who lives in Gilbert, Arizona, grew up in the Northeast. He said he doesn’t have a noticeable accent and that the trucking company owner “couldn’t tell by his voice over the phone that he was black.”

    “When I walked into the office, they were shocked to see that I was an African-American,” Ware told FreightWaves. “I was given every excuse: that I hadn’t talked to the owner, that I must have been confused about which company I was talking to, that there was no job opening. It was frustrating.”

    He later founded Black Truckers United, which has over 460 members, to give other minority truckers a platform to discuss diversity and racism in the industry.

    “Understanding the race issue is going to take several long conversations in the trucking industry,” Ware said.

    Protesters around the world have been demonstrating against police brutality and systemic racism for nearly two weeks after George Floyd, a black man, died while being restrained by ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

    Chauvin, who has been charged now with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, was filmed by a bystander as Chauvin held a knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, during which time Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe.

    According to court documents, ex-Minneapolis police officers Thomas Lane, 37, Tou Thao, 34, and J. Alexander Kueng, 26, have all been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

    On the surface, racism isn’t as blatant as it once was in the trucking industry, according to Lawrence E. Bell of Pittsburg, Texas, who has been a truck driver for about 10 years.

    While racial slurs are not as prevalent on the CB as they were 10 years ago, Bell said some truck drivers now hide behind their computers and post racially insensitive comments anonymously on social media.

    “We have become so desensitized by seeing people killed in the street because of the prevalence of social media,” Bell told FreightWaves. “A comedian once said in the old days that if someone’s relative passed away, there were always a bunch of people coming to your house with a covered dish. Now, it’s like better your family member than mine.”

    Some truck drivers have been commenting in social media posts about protesters blocking interstates or streets in cities across the country with phrases like “black lives splatter” or “all lives splatter,” a mocking reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.

    FreightWaves survey addresses racism in the industry

    The FreightWaves Research team recently surveyed 154 motor carriers of all sizes on the topic of racism in the trucking industry.

    Nearly 47% of the carriers responded viewed racism as a problem in the trucking industry, while 40% answered no and 13% had no opinion.

    Of those surveyed, 44% of respondents stated they have encountered racism in their daily job, either as a victim or witness, while 51% answered no and 5% had no opinion of the subject.

    The FreightWaves survey asked if transportation companies do enough to address racism? Of the carriers surveyed, 52% answered no, 24% answered yes and 24% had no opinion.

    Of the 154 survey respondents, 55% were executives of their companies, 18% responded as “other” and 15% chose not to answer the question. Just shy of 13% of the motor carriers’ drivers participated in the survey about racism in the industry.

    “Just the trucking industry admitting that there is a race problem is a step in the right direction,” Parker said. “Companies can do a better job of communicating with their drivers to find out what their struggles are and making everything more equal on the playing field.”

    Just days after George Floyd’s death and as protests raged across the nation, Bob Biesterfeld, president and chief executive of C.H. Robinson Worldwide (NASDAQ: CHRW), headquarters in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, posted to LinkedIn a letter he sent to Robinson employees.

    “As I’ve watched these events unfold, I am even more committed to ensuring that I, as a leader, and C.H. Robinson as a company, stand firmly in our values. It should go without saying that racism and violence are not tolerated,” Biesterfeld wrote.

    EEOC on racism

    Transportation and warehouse workers filed over 10,500 charges of race discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) over a 10-year period, from FY2009 to 2019.

    While the number has dropped from its peak of 1,403 allegations in FY2011 to 767 in 2019, the problem is still occurring in all blue-collar industries, not just trucking, according to Joseph J. Olivares, a bilingual public affairs specialist with the EEOC. He urges company officials to take claims of racist behavior seriously.

    “When one company says, ‘Well, it’s one bad apple causing this situation, it doesn’t really matter because it is the employer’s responsibility to eliminate discrimination in the workplace,” Olivares told FreightWaves. “So if an employee says, ‘Hey boss, I’m being discriminated against, it’s imperative that the boss or general manager, whoever, takes action in finding out what’s going on, and if something is going on, to remedy that situation.”

    Olivares said the agency has outreach programs designed to prevent discrimination, which is a better option than dealing with the results and consequences after a race discrimination charge has been filed.

    “It is important for both employees and employers to know about their rights and responsibilities in the workplace, so it’s not an excuse [for employers] to say it’s one bad apple,” Olivares said. “Workers have the right to work in a place free of discrimination.”

    Racism and CB Rambos

    Gabby Parker, 43, of Dutchtown, a neighborhood of St. Louis, says she got trucking fever seven years ago after her brother bet her that she couldn’t drive a truck.

    She won the bet and has been on the road since as an independent contractor for Illinois-based Roadrunner Transportation Systems.

    Parker said she’s been called racial slurs over the CB a few times, including once while warning other drivers of a bad wreck on the interstate.

    “He was able to tell by the sound of my voice over the CB radio that I was black and called me names, but then another driver chimed in and defended me,” Parker told FreightWaves.

    She said she gets her love of the open road from her dad, who drove for Yellow Freight for over 20 years before retiring.

    The slurs Parker has endured do not make her insensitive to the plight of truckers who unintentionally find themselves in the middle of a raucous demonstration. While she’s paid off her truck and chooses the areas she wants to run, Parker said she sympathizes with company drivers who can’t pick their routes and have been caught in moving protests.

    She watched in horror as the driver of a FedEx double tractor-trailer honked his horn before moving his truck in St. Louis, pinning and killing a man as looters swarmed the driver’s truck and stole packages out of the back of his two trailers. As of Monday, the driver had not been charged.

    Fears about public safety have left truckers who deliver freight in many of the affected areas on edge.

    None of the drivers FreightWaves spoke to want to be put in a situation like what happened to truck driver Reginald Denny, who was pulled from his truck cab and beaten during the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four police officers charged with using excessive force in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.

    “No driver should be put in that position,” Parker told FreightWaves. “I don’t support some drivers out there claiming they are just going to mow down rioters, so I would proceed slowly. But if you continue to jump in my way or try to climb up in my cab, then that’s between you and God because I have a job to do and I have a family to get home to.”

    Bell said he would support legislation that would allow him to carry a handgun in his truck.

    One truck driver, who didn’t want to be named, said another driver passed him on the interstate recently and called him the “N” word over the CB, then commented that he didn’t deserve the new Peterbilt he was driving.

    “I earned every cent to get where I’m at today,” the black trucker said. “You don’t gotta like me, but don’t try to take away from my accomplishments because of my skin color.”

    Frozen out of financial discussions

    Growing up in the Northeast, Ware said he was always fascinated by National Carriers, known for having the slogan “the Elite Fleet” on the sides of its trucks.

    “The drivers always drove these extended nose Peterbilts and so the first truck I bought was a Peterbilt,” Ware told FreightWaves.

    While many truck drivers have nice equipment and tend to park together at truck stops, Ware said many white drivers aren’t willing to share their financial knowledge with black drivers.

    “I had been going down the road talking to a driver about his equipment, then when I pulled into the truck stop when he saw me, he just walked on by me like we didn’t just have a conversation,” he said.

    The purpose of a black trucking group was to unite drivers and talk about important issues like managing finances in the industry, Ware said. However, he admits some black drivers don’t want to interact with others on the road.

    “At truck stops, you will see Sikh drivers or Hispanic drivers spot each other and start up a friendly conversation,” Ware said. “That isn’t always the case among the African-American driver community.”

    While it’s not a perfect industry and Parker said she doesn’t think it ever will be, she is upset that wages have not changed in decades.

    “I know the trainer that taught me how to drive also taught me how to manage my money in the industry,” Parker said. “She made it perfectly clear that the pay had gone down from the time she started to the time she retired.”

    As many businesses were forced to shut down and some truckers struggled to find freight during the coronavirus pandemic, Parker said most minority small business owners, including truckers, didn’t receive access to essential bank loans to stay afloat.

    According to a survey by Global Strategy Group, only 12% of black and Latino small business owners who applied for assistance through the federal Paycheck Protection Program received loans.

    Fighting complacency

    Bell told FreightWaves that while many white drivers have expressed sadness and anger about the deaths of George Floyd and others in police custody, those who are angry are sitting in their living rooms, not speaking out about systemic racism and police brutality.

    “Sometimes a person’s silence and complacency are worse than the people that are initiating the problem,” Bell said.

    Teaching people how to let go of their prejudices would go a long way in the trucking industry, Bell said.

    “We all tend to size people up before even speaking to them — what they are about, what they believe, what they think, who they vote for just by seeing a person,” he said. “Some people have more respect for a dog than a human being. When you don’t care about a person’s humanity, you don’t care what happens to them.”

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