We’ve all seen the news. The rallies and protests triggered by the killing of George Floyd have taken center stage all across this country, as persons of all races and ethnicities gather in city streets to express frustration, hurt, and anger. These are, indeed, tense and “charged” times. Times that call for tough conversations within communities, about how racism, discrimination, biases, and differences in viewpoints shape the ways in which those communities function. This includes the supply chain management (SCM) community.
We have had long-held conversations regarding gender disparities in SCM, but the widescale focus on the George Floyd incident opens a door for us to bring the race conversation to the forefront. There are many things that we could discuss on race, but as a researcher of last-mile logistics and home delivery services, I’d like to raise one concerning issue for us to talk about, ponder, and hopefully act on.
I’ve been in SCM for over 25 years. I started as an intern for a state department of transportation, worked for a major carrier in claims and billing, launched my professional career managing small package transportation for a major corporation, and throughout these experiences, worked my way through college and graduate school, eventually earning a PhD in SCM. For the last 20 years, I’ve been in the SCM academic community, serving on faculty at many of the field’s most well-respected university programs. In this capacity I not only educate emerging SCM talent, but I also spend considerable time studying strategic SCM issues (like last-mile logistics) and working with several major corporations in the process. And, I must admit...In my many years of observing our industry from these various viewpoints and perspectives, never... never have I ever... been as concerned and fearful for the safety of frontline logistics and transportation workers as I am today.
Let me be more specific by adding another of my characteristics to my credentials—I’m a black man. It is that part of my identity that triggered this piece, because while I am generally concerned about the safety of all frontline logistics workers, especially in light of COVID-19, I am most and directly concerned about my fellow black men in our SCM community that are charged with the task of providing last-mile delivery services. Let me also be clear in saying that this is not a new concern. It’s been brewing for some time. But a series of recent events, including the situation in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have brought my concern to a boiling point—prompting me to pull up a chair and attempt to start a conversation.
In case you missed this story in the news... a black male delivery driver was recently stopped by members of a neighborhood community demanding answers regarding his reasons for being there. These weren’t simple inquiries, mind you... they were demands, laced with threats of calling law enforcement, apparently out of concern for the safety of their neighborhood. The driver, recording it all via a mobile device, was eventually “allowed to leave”... but only after the delivery recipient intervened, assuring neighbors that the driver had a valid reason for being in their community.
Fast forward a few days, and another such incident occurs. In this case, a pair of FedEx independent contractors, black men in full FedEx uniform, deliver a package to a home. Upon leaving, a resident of the home chased and confronted the men, yelling threats and verbal attacks. After law enforcement intervention, the resident claimed that he had done so out of fear that these men were potential burglary threats. Again, the incident was video captured by one of the drivers.
Fast forward another week, and yet another example surfaces. A black man attempting a DoorDash delivery in an Arizona apartment complex was met by a resident with a drawn firearm. The resident claimed to be afraid of the delivery worker and held him at gunpoint until law enforcement arrived.
Now, some would classify these as isolated incidents, perhaps blown out of proportion by social media retweets and reposts. Some might argue that these are nothing more than simple misunderstandings that were captured and shared, in order to highlight one side of the story. I disagree. Either way, this disturbing pattern allows for a broader conversation because what I know for sure is that these situations represent the oft unspoken fears and concerns that many black men shoulder when navigating neighborhoods to make deliveries.
Stories abound where African Americans, particularly men, are reported to law enforcement for what is found to be benign occurrences, simply because their presence and/or disagreement are interpreted as a threat of significant harm. A most recent example involves Amy Cooper, a New York Central Park patron, who, upon being asked to leash her dog by a black man, called law enforcement and falsely claimed that her life was in danger...all while being recorded. This story was shocking to many, but came as no surprise to black men. We know that we are often viewed as a threat. It is an awareness that we carry, and an unfortunate tax of physicality that we pay. Yet, as the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have so hurtfully illustrated, we also know that our traipsing about city streets can be interpreted as threatening, and can lead to loss of life, even if law enforcement is involved.
And, that is what I want us... the SCM community... to consider.
I am concerned. The sheer numbers suggest an increased likelihood of situations similar to the delivery examples above. As we have seen, COVID-19 has caused more marketplace consumers to shift to online retail for food and product purchases, which means an increase in home deliveries, and an increased potential for delivery-related confrontations involving African American drivers. Furthermore, many online retailers and restaurants are turning to crowdsourced home-delivery service providers for last mile logistics, which means an increase in home deliveries made by drivers in “ordinary” vehicles wearing “ordinary” clothes. And, in the event that these ordinarily clothed delivery drivers are black men, there is unfortunate likelihood that we will see more reported repeats of the aforementioned delivery incidences. Perhaps with even worse outcomes, especially if not recorded.
SCM community, let’s take this seriously! Yes, the leading story of the day involves law enforcement in Minneapolis, but this emerging pattern of delivery-related issues suggests we also have problems in our SCM community. The sad truth is that, for black male delivery drivers, simply circling a neighborhood to find an address location, or opening a screen door in order to secure a package, comes with a real threat of being accused, accosted, arrested, or dare we even say...assaulted or killed. I ask that we not turn a deaf ear or blind eye to this issue, especially in light of the heightened tensions in our country. I wish I had a list of solutions to provide, but I don’t. I can only ask that we expand our thinking regarding driver safety. In addition to investing in things like personal protective equipment (PPE), advanced technologies, and updated delivery equipment as ways of enhancing driver safety, let’s also consider implementing processes and standards to combat the safety threats that biases and racial stereotypes pose for frontline delivery drivers—especially those that are African American and men.