Sunday, June 14, 2020

An Industry I Have Given My Life To Has Gone Silent Like A Hybrid

This is the paint job of NASCAR's only Black fulltime driver Bubba Wallace, Jr., official Black Lives Matter car, after the sport agreed to ban the Confederate flag.

Dear Automotive Community,

Over the past few weeks, America has been dealt a triple whammy. Our country has had to manage COVID-19, the recession and the recent racial injustices that can no longer be ignored. As Americans, we are no longer in a position to lecture other countries about their human rights injustices, when this country has literally turned a blind eye to the Black community, more specifically Black men who look like me.

The industry, which I have invested my life in, has literally switched into hybrid mode - being as silent as a mouse. Unlike with COVID-19, almost every automaker wanted to show the world how they were committed to fight the virus. Most automakers adjusted their advertising to reflect the mood of America, while others offered 'Car Mortgages' and deferred payments to let Americans know, as many were sheltered in place, and unable to work, sending the message we are here for you. Some car companies converted segments of their manufacturing plant to build ventilators, while others lent out vehicles to essential workers. The automotive community showed their compassionate side, as well as their financial commitments.

Ironically, corporate America, more specifically, the car industry has found itself in a place, where everyone is hoping that the 'Detroit 3' will deal with the taboo subject of racial injustice. In fact, the entire auto industry seems to be waiting for the 'Detroit 3' to speak for all of them, notwithstanding the fact, a number of the import automakers have assembly plants located in the deep South - Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama. The places which they are located accounts for a significant percentage of the Black community. 

Unlike COVID-19, the industry, for the most part, has opted to remain silent in hopes that they can remain in hybrid mode, while maximizing their mpg, because this is a road most have tried to steer clear of.

Being that many headquarters and regional offices are still in social distancing mode, most have not had to deal face-to-face with their Black employees, coworkers, suppliers, media partners and the like. As we all know, its just not the same when we're on Zoom. We can all bear to be uncomfortable for the business at hand, while virtually connecting. 

During my early days in corporate America, I can vividly recall, when a coworker and I chose not to go into the office on the day the O.J. verdict was announced. Being one of a handful of folks, who looked like me, in the office, we knew that it would be an uncomfortable day. 

Moreover, when I was barely 22 years old, I remember a culturally insensitive boss telling me the only reason I was hired was due to the fact that the automaker needed to fulfill a (racial) quota (and that one of the female administrative assistants in the office was slated for my position prior to the decision to bring me up from the South).

And, as a young Black man, being plucked from the South and thrown into the Midwest's corporate culture, after having being trained at the same institution that birthed Dr. King, what was I supposed to say? If I responded, how would I be labeled? Do I keep my mouth close and work twice as hard, since I knew I was carrying the weight of a legacy of people I was representing? Still today, many Black employees working in a corporate environment are having to do the same.

Even more shocking, I can recall being called a Nigger by one of my clients, an automobile dealer, while conducting business over the phone in the regional office. I must note for those who feel uncomfortable with the descriptive word, imagine how I felt as a young Black man being called such - for the first time - in my life. Well, as I pen this, I don't have to worry about being censored or fined by the FCC, since my website is not regulated by that agency. Hence, once again I found myself in a situation that college nor my parents prepared me for. How was I supposed to respond? If I said something derogatory to the dealer, how would I be labeled? If I remained silent, would I be considered selling out my community, my soul, my self-worth? 

Fortunately, I had a boss in the office, who looked like me, who took action against the dealer (beyond my personal refusal to work with the dealer again). What would have happened had I not had a boss who could literally feel my pain -- walking in my shoes? I must note when I was hired, there was not a boss in the office who looked like me.

Moreover, I can remember being assigned to a new job in Iowa, where one of the cities in the state, had literally just made the national news for burning crosses on a bridge, because the residents did not welcome folks who looked like me. Regardless of how much my blue collar parents from the South sacrificed to make sure I was educated, at one of the premier HBCUs (Historically Black College and Universities), in America, in the world for that matter, the United States has continued to remind me, as well as my community, that we are not always on equal footings. 

In fact, still today, whether its being on the inside in corporate and/or on the media side, there are times I've been made to feel -- just be happy that you were invited. Yes, to be a Black man in a corporate environment has created some interesting challenges for me, as well as others who have been forced to be silent in order to retain their jobs and not to be labeled. 

Fast forward, decades later, being on the media side and hosting the only automotive radio program on SiriusXM, as well as one that is syndicated too, I am able to view the industry from a broader perspective, especially with the guests and range of topics covered. An industry that has attempted to steer clear of dealing with diversity and/or redefining diversity to favor one marginalized group over another has found itself at a crossroad. 

Just imagine if your current senior management team was as diverse as your buyers. Your company would feel comfortable, making a statement in support of my community. 

Now, look at your current corporate culture. Does it reflect your car buyers? What about your senior management team? How many sales would you be foregoing? How would that translate to your bottom line? Is this a community that you can continue to write-off, as the country continues to diversify?

As many companies, who have opted to speak out in support of the Black community have come to realize, they will face a lot of scrutiny, if the message is not authentic. I have purposely done the work with my radio program, Auto Trends with, making sure I have a diversity of guests, as well as topics. Yes, extra work has been required on my part. 

What I have realized is that I can't ask the industry that I am embedded in to do the same, if I am not doing it myself. That would be hypocrisy. 

Although I am a Black man, my guests and topics represent the diversity of the world. I am always willing to stretch and move outside of my comfort zone, with my show, that is. As I have been told by some of my regular listeners, its more than just the traditional car talk. I have had topics and guests representing almost every community -- from the pioneers of the LGBTQ  automotive advertising to the first woman who ran an automotive lifestyle magazine to the first Hispanic to become CEO of a major automaker to traditional car topics led by J.D. Power. And yes, I proudly have pioneers and trendsetters on the show who looks like me, too. 

The auto industry has an opportunity to be a beacon of light for my community, as well as the world. We have everyone around the globe speaking up for my community, holding protests and going to bat for us. Where is the automotive community? 

Unlike what the auto industry is doing now, I personally used my access to CNN to advocate on the airwaves on the behalf of several car companies, during the Great Recession, when there were politicians (and others) who wanted them to fail. My dad worked in an assembly plant, building cars. He was one of the first wave of Blacks to be hired. As you should know by now, this industry runs deep in my blood. When the auto industry needed me most, I used my platform because it was the right thing to do. I had benefited from it. 

Conversely, within the automotive industry, it seems to be business as usual. The sentiment seems to be we're not getting involved with anything related to race. We are going to remain colorblind. Just like your company needs the Black media, to share its stories, your Black coworkers, Black plant workers, Black suppliers, Black dealers needs your companies voice, too, as well as your financial commitments. 

Here's one thing I suggest the automakers consider, before using the company platform to publicly connect to my community. The auto industry must be authentic. I realize many of the automakers are finally being forced to take a look in the mirror. They're damned if they say something and damned if they're silent. I get it.

Personally, when I reflect upon the moment my boss stood up for me when I was called a Nigger, I appreciated it. Just imagine, how my community would feel, especially those of us who are attracted to those 'Car Mortgages,' we have stretched into to keep adding to the bottom line of the auto industry. 

Furthermore, as I am penning this piece, I think its appropriate to reference my bout with cancer with the call of duty my community is seeking from the auto industry. A few years ago when I was diagnosed with the disease, I had some in my inner circle who wanted to remain silent because the  conversation made them feel uncomfortable. It made some in my inner circle have to face their own mortality, at an early age too. 

Just imagine the inner turmoil I was experiencing, while trying to make some in my inner circle feel comfortable. This is the same tightrope that your company is asking of the Black community. Do we have to talk about this? Can it be business as usual even if we're not allocating our internal budgets to reflect the sales the community contributes to the bottom line?

Thankfully, during my fight with cancer, I did have one person from the auto industry who literally stepped up to the plate, while also becoming a member of my inner circle. The individual stepped out of his comfort zone, admitting to me that he had no experience in dealing with folks with cancer, but whatever I needed, he was available long distance. The response I received from this 'Guardian Angel' was both honest and authentic. 

And yes, there were many times I had to lean on the individual across the country to aid me with weathering the disease. Yes, I was appreciative (and they know it). I have been publicly working to use my voice in the cancer lane too, with a healthcare industry and key leaders, who has chosen to stay silent, as it relates to Black men (and cancer).

C'mon automotive industry you're better than this. There are folks who are unemployed, who will spend the rest of the year on the streets protesting racial injustices. Unlike in the past, this racial road we've found ourselves on isn't going to just fade to black, no pun intended. The younger generation, which is your next wave of car buyers, approach is different than my generation, just as my approach differs from my parents generation.

If NASCAR can make a bold statement, banning the Confederate flag, at the risk of alienating their White male base, where are the leaders in the auto industry? 

With all of that said, here are four articles worth reading, as many companies struggle to understand the Black community and how to deal with the sensitive subject of race.

Harvard Business Review: How Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism

A Retired NBA Player Shares Why His Community Is Pushed To The Edge

Corporate Businesses Why Your Black Lives Matter Response Falls Short

What Are Companies Doing Besides Black Matter Posts?

While the door was opened for me to kick-off my professional automotive career, as a result of a quota that needed to be filled, my community needs the door to be reopened. Be fair with budgets. Be inclusive with hiring in all aspects of your organization. As any expert will tell you, a diversity of folks makes for a better work environment, a better America, a better world.

As the General Manager of Hank Aaron's BMW store said during a recent radio conversation on my show, all my community needs is the opportunity. As you may or may not know, Hank Aaron was BMW's first black dealer. Within three months of the baseball legend dealership doors being opened, the store turned a profit. In fact, the representatives from BMW weren't expecting for Aaron to turn a profit until, at least 3 years, after opening his doors.

I am not asking your company to fill a quota just to silence my community. I've seen that back fire. For us, diversity means spending money and making sure we're represented in your management team, in advertising, marketing, public relations, dealer representation and supplier diversity. We add to the bottom line too. In fact, according to IHS Markit, my community accounts for 8 percent of today's new vehicle sales. And when we factor in pre-owned, an even greater lion's share.

Many of us have a vision in mind of connecting the entire auto industry to the HBCU community, all 107 schools. This means going beyond a scholarship or two. Each automaker can adopt at least two to four schools. Let's make a significant commitment that will benefit both your community and the community that drives your cars for years to come.

Car designer Ed Weburn, who was the highest ranking Black executive in the industry prior to his retirement a few years ago, was a product of a HBCU. None of the White design schools he applied to accepted him. Thus, he turned to a HBCU. They developed a program just for Welburn and he made billions of dollars for GM, during his 44 years career. 

Under Welburn, he has mentored Andre Hudson, who went on to make a lot of money for Hyundai, its dealers and suppliers, through designing the head-turning 2011 Hyundai Sonata, which placed the company on the map in the U.S. And Welburn also mentored Crystal Windham, who currently oversees the interior designs of Cadillac. Windham is the highest ranking Black female in design. Supporting a HBCU is one means of connecting to a community that buys your cars, while also investing in their education. We also need to make commitments to today's urban school systems, too.

After reading this, if you're in a position to influence change in your company, its time to have a honest conversation with your CEO or senior leaders, especially the leaders who are quietly twiddling their thumbs on what they should do (or if you notice its business as usual), reach out. We have a strategic plan mapped out. If you're the CEO or a member of the senior leadership team, what are you waiting on?

If NBA great Michael Jordan, who has steered clear during most of his life from publicly making statements as it relates to race, can donate $100 million from his personal funds to organizations, fighting racism against people in his community, surely the automotive community can make a substantial investment, too. Lowe's has committed $25 million in grants to aid minority businesses as a result of COVID-19. Of course, each automaker can invest more towards my community than one man!

In closing, years ago, Toyota stepped up, making a commitment to the Black community after a derogatory ad about men, who looked like me, was created by one of their general market agencies. Since that time, the automaker has put their money where their mouth is. Yes, Toyota still has much more work they can do. 

Who else is going to step up to the plate? This time the world is not going to wait until the industry converts to electrification. This younger generation is not going to allow us to place them on the back burner. All of these priorities can be done in unison, from working with the Black media to making a substantial  investment with our educational community. The auto industry has been known to be leaders with the ability to manage a number of priorities. Let's show my community you're all in.

Your Automotive Partner,

Jeff Fortson
Radio Host/A Student Of The Auto Industry

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