If business executives are still puzzling over how to make a difference on racial injustice, they can start by going back to class. That's what the chief executive of SPS Commerce, Archie Black, did.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police last May forced many leaders in the Twin Cities to look in the mirror. For 20 years, Black has been chief executive of SPS, a supplier of e-commerce software to retailers and their suppliers across the globe. In recent years, it has been one of the fastest-growing big companies in town.
All through that time, SPS has checked the boxes on fairness and anti-discrimination best practices by providing various forms of "diversity training" to its employees. After Floyd's death, Black said, he realized such training had not done enough to create opportunities and a fairer workplace.
As a trustee at the University of St. Thomas, Black decided to ask the school's president, Julie Sullivan, for some ideas. "And I said, look, I don't need more training," Black said. "I need to get educated, on how we got here and where we really are."
She put him in touch with Yohuru Williams, a history professor who leads the St. Thomas Racial Justice Initiative.
"There were a lot of conversations happening, but not necessarily about the right things," Williams told me last week about the immediate period after Floyd's killing. He said terms such as "white supremacy" and "white fragility" were being tossed around in a vacuum.
To businesses and community groups that want to deepen their understanding of the experience of Americans of color, Williams said the solution is what he calls "historical recovery."
Most people know that slavery ended in 1865, but what happened to the formerly enslaved people when the racial caste system called Jim Crow sprung up? What happened in what's now called the Tulsa Race Massacre? How were Depression-era federal home loan maps used when making mortgages? And why were neighborhoods with a lot of Black residents colored in red?
Many adults learned about the experience of Black Americans only through the Civil War. If they were lucky, Williams said, they also learned about the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. And overall, they drew the impression that the difficulties of Black people were confined to the American South.
Yet there also was a horrific lynching in Duluth decades after slavery ended. Large swaths of the Twin Cities for much of the 20th century were legally off-limits for Black and Jewish homeowners.
And in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Interstate 94 in St. Paul was built through the Rondo neighborhood, home to most of St. Paul's Black families. There was an alternative proposed for a rail corridor just to the north that would have spared hundreds of homes and 60 to 80 businesses. I can't find a source that says that other route was even seriously considered.
"You are not talking about ancient history there," Williams said. "I understand why people are reticent, in some instances, to go back and talk about slavery. But there's no reason we can't talk about Rondo."
These are some of the lessons Williams shares when he is invited to talk to business leaders, trying to connect some dots and fill in gaps of what people should know about their own history.
One of the places he was invited is Ryan Cos., the Minneapolis-based construction and real estate development firm. "Never have I had a history class that did for me what he did for us," said Ryan CEO Brian Murray, a 1988 graduate of St. Thomas.
In the discussions that followed Williams' two-hour session with 65 or so Ryan managers last fall, Murray said, some younger managers seemed better informed. For those maybe 40 and older, though, Williams' talk had been a revelation. It was the first time some had heard things like how G.I. Bill housing benefits were denied Black veterans after World War II.
Williams started his work at SPS Commerce with the eight top executives of the company. All of them did six to eight hours of homework beforehand. Then a broader group of SPS employees went to class, and soon a version of this short history of the Black American experience had been shared with all of the roughly 1,500 employees of the company. It will be for any new hires, too, Black said.
As to how well this was received, Black said, "It would be hard for somebody [to] say, 'Look, Archie, I don't want to be educated.' "
Williams calls companies such as SPS Commerce and Ryan "partners," meaning there's a continuing relationship, for him to teach but also to learn. He also wants to provide business owners and managers a chance to ask questions and share their experiences without fear of looking ignorant.
He encourages executives and business owners to first look inside their own businesses before jumping into a high-profile project such as volunteering to solve some perceived problem with public schools.
Not long ago he met with executives with a pest-control business. He explained to them how controlling rodents, picking up the garbage and even providing water that's safe to drink have all been problems in cities and neighborhoods with a lot of poor people of color.
If looking for a social justice issue to work on, there's nothing wrong with starting with pest control.
Black and his managers have been first looking inside, too. SPS has formally adopted "reducing systemic racism" as a corporate strategic initiative. Specific work plans now being carried out are focused on things such as recruiting more people of color, developing the skills of employees already on board and carefully analyzing company spending.
Yet this isn't a short-term project. There's money in the budget for this year, but with the expectation this work to reduce systemic racism will continue for years.
"This is a 400-year problem," Black said. "This is not going to be done in the first half of 2021."