The difficulties faced by the American automotive industry during the past several years are well-trod territory.
I worked in the factory automation engineering environment, and I had a circle of engineering friends. It was clear to me that many were unaware of the industry’s plight and the seemingly predictable shakeup.
I didn’t know how bad the shakeup would be, but I knew it would take a huge toll on Milwaukee’s black middle class.
More than 20 years ago, speaking to a group of successful African-Americans, I asked, “Where will your children work?”
Reaching out to blacks who were living the American dream — working for major manufacturing entities, insurance and financial agencies, hospitals and the government — I asked them to think beyond their own comforts and focus on the next generation.
“Where will your children work?” was a call to support black business as a means to grow jobs in the black community.
With the Wisconsin black population concentrated in southeast Wisconsin, the question focused on the perceived lack of opportunities for blacks statewide, but especially in the region outside of Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha.
It was a call for working black professionals to find ways to ask their majority-owned organizations to be more deliberate about diversity, both inside and outside of the corporate suites. In essence, we were asking blacks holding jobs to break down barriers for black entrepreneurs.
Some will see this as racist, although it happens regularly in other communities without being vocalized.
Nonetheless, it was not my intent to ask employees to violate corporate codes of conduct or engage in unethical behavior, but instead to actively seek opportunities to bring up diverse corporate spending.
Far too often, blacks, not wanting to appear biased, tilt toward neutrality or even become anti-black as they try to assure peers they’re being fair.
Corporations in southeast Wisconsin, a region rich in diversity, that employ only a few minorities in visible positions are suffering from structural racism. This is racism that comes from white privilege and is a self-inflicted wound.
It doesn’t mean that those who engage in this practice intentionally are racist. However, without taking a proactive approach to diversity, firms find themselves with limited access to a world of new workers, ideas, vendors and markets.
It’s been said that foreign car manufacturers made their inroads into America because our Big Three had their heads buried in the sand. I recall the possibly apocryphal story of an automotive CEO looking out of his window, onto the Detroit expressways, and saying, “No one wants small cars; otherwise I would see them on the road.”
Recently a black entrepreneur shared that her company sent two black employees into a western suburb to perform work, only to receive a call from a white female homeowner asking why the company had sent two black men to the home. The client admitted to being pleased with the work, but just not interested in having black men in her home.
Chances are the caller will attend some religious service this weekend, never thinking about the sinful nature of her own actions. Sadly, the entrepreneur in this story is left shaking her head, as the two men she sent to perform the work were her sons.