"I could have moved to a swanky suburb, but I chose to stay, to give back the way the Italians did, the Jews did, the Irish did.”
That quote comes from newspaperman Melvin Miller, who was talking about the evolution of immigrant groups—how they started in tenements and cramped urban dwellings and gradually worked their way up and out, but how they frequently gave money back to help those left behind.
It’s the American immigrant story, but not the African-American one.
The African-American tale is less about immigrants and more about slavery, about Jim Crow laws, about Affirmative Action, about finding their own legacy, their own identity, their own winning story.
Miller founded The Bay State Banner in the 1960s in Boston’s rugged Roxbury-Dorchester section. As a graduating journalism student at Boston University, I had the privilege of working at the Banner, where I was among a handful of white people working, eating and breathing in the pulse of black Boston.
It was during the height of crack cocaine, street crime and high unemployment for the state’s so-called minority community. That’s what the mainstream press saw. What Mel saw, and I would come to see, was a community much more complex. Many of the families I met were raised by single moms, some younger than 16. But there was more: the mechanic who proudly opened up his second shop and was excited about hiring some young black men; the beautician who, after working for a salon, was launching her own shop; the man falsely convicted of a crime, released and excited about his future.
The issue of race is one we don’t like to talk about. It’s confrontational, emotional and, too often, unproductive. Yet amid the white cop-black victim shootings of the past year and rising racial tensions, this is no longer a conversation we can afford to ignore.
A few months back, one of the most respected retail executives sought to do something positive. Howard Schultz, chief executive of Starbucks, wanted to initiate a dialogue. In the aftermath of last
summer’s implosion in Ferguson, Mo., that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown and
subsequent protests there and in other U.S. cities, Schultz introduced forums with his employees to talk about race. He launched the Race Together initiative, which had baristas scribbling the phrase “Race together” on Starbucks cups.
The execution was amateurish and, if Schultz accomplished something, it was that he united liberal and conservative, black and white, in mocking the notion that a simple cup could solve the problems of millennia.
But Schultz was onto something. When Ferguson was ablaze, smoldering nearby was a store from one of our industry’s best. Some demonstrators looted and torched local businesses, those that employed and catered to community needs. The scene was disturbing but it also, in a perverse way, offered hope.
Hank Armour and others with NACS have long extolled the c-store as the bedrock of our nation. There is a c-store in every congressional district. It is the place where folks get their morning coffee, purchase bags of ice on a hot day and grab a midday snack.
If we agree that America is at a crossroads, that in our heart we know we are not yet one nation, then we have to ask a question.
Do we care? And if we do, what can we do about it? What can our industry of more than 150,000 stores that employs more than 2.4 million people do? What can we do as individual businesses to further integrate a country that is increasingly multiracial and that in just a few years will show whites as less than 50% of our nation?
What we know is that black men have it hardest. An April story in The New York Times called “1.5 Million Black Men, Missing From Daily Life” is a must-read.
I don’t have a final answer. I do have a few starting points:
Engage others who look or think differently than you. As my mentor and longtime former CSP owner Paul Reuter would often say, “Don’t get comfortable.” Comfort leads to malaise and stale thinking.
Recruit outside traditional means. When jobs open, expand your sweep to outlets more popular with people of different races. Support causes that embrace diversity—and visit them. It’s important to see kids and adults of different races engaging in positive activities such as sports, crafts or volunteerism.
Open your eyes. Look at your company across its levels, from the store to middle and upper management. Does your company’s composition come close to representing your clientele? (I am not talking about quotas or Affirmative Action but about what is best for your long-term business success.)
When I worked for the Banner, my beat was a weekly feature that appeared on the inside pages. Miller best explained its purpose to me: “We have a story that’s more than just drugs, guns and teen pregnancy. I stayed here because I want to tell the rest of the story—the one about black men and women who are making a life for themselves and who are giving back to their communities.”
Let us make a difference.