Last month, about 25 members of the Ben & Jerry’s team took an unusual trip together to Greensboro, North Carolina. We weren’t there to talk about Chocolate Fudge Brownie or meet with retail customers or suppliers. We went on a learning journey organized by the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation. We went to learn what we could about structural racism in America.
Greensboro has a long history of civil rights activism, starting with the Greensboro sit-ins, non-violent protests against segregated lunch counters in 1960. More recently, the Ben & Jerry's Foundation has worked with groups in the city and established relationships with community leaders. And with North Carolina's retrogressive new voting laws going into effect this year, there's no better time for us to dive into the issue of structural racism, and no better place to start the journey.
Why structural racism? Our motivation came from a number of places: our company’s Social Mission, our Foundation leadership and our company Board of Directors. But mostly, our motivation came from the world around us, and from the disturbing news headlines. Hardly a week has gone by for the last year and more without a painful story of a police shooting, student protest or academic study that has made it clear that there are advantages to being white, and disadvantages to being black and brown in the United States – sometimes with fatal consequences.
We have heard the growing chorus of voices speaking out with new urgency demanding equity for people of color, many with the cry that Black Lives Matter. We felt compelled to do more than wish for progress. So we started a process to listen and to learn from those who struggle and fight for racial equity as their life’s work.
To be clear, 94% of Ben & Jerry’s workforce is white. Our home state of Vermont, where we have two manufacturing plants and our corporate headquarters, is 95% white. We have a wide range of opinions, attitudes and experiences about race represented among our employees. Before this trip, many of us wondered if racism was the right problem for us to take on, or if it really mattered in Vermont. On the other hand, we have people of color in our company who have experienced racism in their lives, and some of us have struggled and fought against racism for years. But most of us that identify as white have never thought much about our ‘whiteness’ or about the advantages we get from being white.
What we learned in Greensboro was eye-opening.
The Reality in America
What we learned in Greensboro, from folks young and old, black, brown and white, is that just about every measure of social, economic and political well-being in America points to better outcomes for white people. And the evidence is clear: that’s largely because our institutions create and maintain advantages for white people.
Consider these facts, which have ample data to support them (1):
- White infants have lower mortality rates than children of color
- White children are educated in schools with more resources, and graduate at higher rates than children of color
- White youth are just as likely to possess illegal drugs as people of color, but they are less likely to be stopped by police, searched by police, convicted or incarcerated
- Resumes with names that sound African-American (like Jamal) are less likely to be chosen for interviews by job recruiters than identical resumes with white sounding names (like Greg)
- White families on average get lower mortgage rates than black families with identical credit scores
- White women get screened for, treated for, and survive breast cancer at higher rates than people of color
- Median family income and net wealth are significantly higher for white families than families of color
The evidence goes on and on. This isn’t about people of color falling behind. It’s about social institutions and systems, with deep historical roots, that give pervasive advantages to white people.
Yes, there are still ugly examples of overt racism in America that come from personal and institutional hatred. But we’ve learned that the structural racism of today doesn’t need overt racists to do its damage. Instead, it silently eases white people toward success while it puts many barriers in front of people of color.
What we learned in Greensboro is that, if we really believe in equity, in America and in our company, we have work to do. We must re-examine and re-imagine our systems and institutions to build a society in which people of all colors thrive and prosper - and are treated equitably and fairly.
Our work starts inside our own company. We aspire to become a more equitable and inclusive business - and to build a culture that makes diversity the real source of our strength. We have formed an equity team to lead that work, and we are well on our way.
But we also decided not to wait until we’re perfect before we start talking about race, and joining with those who work for racial equity, to find shared solutions. As Arundhati Roy said, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.”
We will not keep quiet. We have no illusions that we will change the world with our actions. But we are one voice that seeks true equity for all, joining with other voices, and committed to change.
We are grateful to the wise and committed people who welcomed us to Greensboro – at the Beloved Community Center, Bennett College, the International Civil Rights Center and Museum – and many others who have been willing to teach us and show us the way to live into our values more deeply.
And we are actively looking for the next constructive steps we can take on this path in the months and years ahead.
CITATION (1) "Measuring Racial Equity: A Groundwater Approach". Presentation by Bayard Love and Deena Hayes-Greene of the Racial Equity Institute on 11/3/2015." See also http://www.fusionfilms.org/doing-our-work