(This column was originally written for RER's July print issue)
Since the horrific death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, there has been much discussion about race relations, not only in the United States but in many countries. I’ve always thought a lot about the subject. When I was a young child, I learned a lot about the abuse my first real hero Jackie Robinson endured just so he could play major league baseball, which white men had been playing for three quarters of a century already. I learned about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and what African Americans had gone through to get the right to vote, to be hired for jobs, equal rights to an education, to eat in restaurants and rent apartments and buy houses and stay in hotels and drink from drinking fountains and use the same sanitation facilities as whites.
I’ve had Blacks as friends, neighbors, family members and my son’s godfather. I live in a city that has had Black police chiefs, mayors, athletes, film and music stars and thousands of business owners. Integration has always seemed to me as normal as taking a breath or getting up in the morning or seeing the sun rise. The way I see it, it’s just the way we should live.
But, unfortunately, to many people in this country, it’s not so normal. In many industries and business segments, it doesn’t feel normal at all. In the rental industry, which I’ve now spent a few decades covering, there aren’t a lot of African Americans, proportionally, and I’ve often wondered why. There are not very many Blacks in ownership or management or sales positions in this industry. Maybe I’m mistaken and some of you will write me and correct me. But I’ve been visiting and talking with people in this industry for 30 years. I’ve visited hundreds of rental centers and walked the aisles of dozens of rental and construction trade shows. I don’t see many Black people. When I see Black people at a trade show, I notice them because there are so few.
I’m not making any kind of accusation towards anybody. I’m not calling anybody a racist. I'm not pretending that I'm a civil rights champion. I’m asking the question because I don’t know the answer.
I’d like to see this industry look more like what our society really is composed of. Maybe we need to make a greater effort for this industry to be more inclusive. It has become far more inclusive when it comes to the participation of women, although I think there is still room for a lot of growth in that area. It just seems proportionally there are a lot fewer members of minorities than I see elsewhere in society. I’m not sure what the answer is, or what the solution is. Maybe I’m exaggerating what I see as a deficiency. Maybe not. But I invite more dialogue on this question.
I bring this up in a positive spirit. I think this industry can do a lot to offer opportunities to minorities in general and African-Americans in particular. There has been a lot of discussion about labor shortages in the construction industry for example. Why don’t associations do more to reach out to schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, offer some educational or training possibilities? There is always discussion in the rental industry about the need for workers. Why not partner with trade schools or other educational institutions to offer training and offer some opportunities to enter the work force? I think it could be done and I’d like to see more of it – it could help the rental industry and help provide some opportunities to those who may need them.
As I said, I invite dialogue on this issue. If I’m wrong, please let me know. But if I’m right and you share my concerns, let’s try to do something about it.