Member Brief: It’s Not Us, It’s Them

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The concept of opportunity is deeply personal to me. Opportunity is earned through hard work, proximity, favor, and luck. For many, luck is the variable that wavers. But for others, it is often proximity. One of the last obstacles in eCommerce is the democratization of access and proximity to opportunity.

Amazon is a remarkable company that has improved the world in a number of ways. The retailer has fundamentally changed how Americans consume and, as the second-largest employer in the United States, how many of us work and live. But in one respect, the company continues to lag behind.

When Henry Ford built the Model T automobile, he fundamentally changed America. Not just by who drove the vehicles but by the diaspora of Americans who manufactured them. When Apple minted the idea of the personal computer, the company changed America. The common thread is democratization. This isn’t about what Amazon has changed, this is about what it hasn’t. Amazon changed America without changing America. And that’s a shame.

eCommerce Industry’s Lack of (HR) Innovation

The eCommerce industry is my pride, passion, and joy. But it has not always been the most welcoming of corporate professions. In my 12 years in the business (and prior to running 2PM Inc. full-time), I have been the only African-American in the room for 10 of them. So when I was recently offered a dream role in senior leadership at one of the industry’s foremost companies (not Amazon), I asked a simple question: “Will I be the only one in the room?” When the senior executive replied with the affirmative, I politely declined the offer. I didn’t have the energy to bear the burden; I’ve done it numerous times before. For those who cannot imagine the extracurriculars of tokenism, consider yourselves lucky. It’s sitting in a room and hearing two founders proclaim, “In this building, you’ll never be the smartest in the room.” Or a founder who mocks your daily attire for not being “ethnic” enough. These issues sound small, but they compound over time. Eventually, no money is worth the tolerance of them.

Industries follow patterns; they also follow examples. When it comes to human resources, Amazon doesn’t appear to be setting a great one. On the heels of publishing its annual shareholder letter, the company’s diversity data preceded it:

Amazon began publishing limited data about its workforce demographics in 2014. Its release of more detailed data comes amid mounting criticism that the company has not done enough to give high-paid employment and promotion opportunities to women and people of color. [1]

Amazon’s track record of innovation is incredible. But when it comes to proximity to opportunity, Amazon is as traditionally American as a mid-century Los Angeles suburb.

Mid-century suburbia was the setting of Amazon Studio’s ambitious production, Them. Created, written and directed by a screenwriter named Little Marvin, the filmmaker’s most recent project, as noted by IMDB, debuted in 2006. To fortify the filmmaker’s lack of mass media experience, Amazon Studios recruited screenwriter, actress and producer Lena Waithe to executive produce the 10 episodes that debuted on Amazon Prime on April 9. Waithe has a track record for producing contentious work, Them now among them.

The Great Migration and “Them

The horror anthology explores “The Great Migration” and the obstacles faced by African-American families hopeful for a fair shot at the American Dream. The story begins:

On September 14, 1953, Henry and Livia ‘Lucky’ Emory moved their family from Chatham County, North Carolina to Compton, California. The following occurred over 10 days in the family’s new home at 3011 Palmer Drive.

Between 1916 and 1970, nearly 6 million black Americans migrated from the rural South to the North, Midwest, and West. Los Angeles exploded in population over that time, growing from 63,700 in 1940 to 763,000 in 1970 [2]. Other cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Columbus, and Indianapolis followed suit. With that influx came a set of residential real estate (and corporate) covenants that prevented qualified, well-educated, and financially-literate families from gaining proximity to opportunity. And if they did gain proximity, it was at a prohibitive cost.

Those who migrated were World War II and Korean War veterans, college graduates, nurses, lawyers, doctors, and trade school-trained workers primed to take part in the American Dream. They were unprepared for what would face them in the factories, corporate environments, and neighborhoods on the other side of their journeys. A New York Times retrospective on Them explains how the practices of the mid-century linger on.

If real estate legalese doesn’t sound like fodder for an edge-of-your-seat horror story, consider the implications. Just as government redlining helped create and reinforce segregation by determining who was eligible for mortgages, racial covenants did the same by restricting who was allowed to buy a property at all, finances be damned. A deed might explicitly forbid all owners, present and future, from selling the home to anyone of African or Asian descent. Many older deeds still bear such language. [3]

In 2013, at the closing of my first home, such preventative language had to be stricken from the deed. Over 50 years after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the remnants of those mid-20th century customs remained. The effects of this, I believe, are far more detrimental than is broadly understood.

Restrictive Covenants, Then and Now

While Them portrayed a story about East Compton, Los Angeles (then an all-white suburb of Los Angeles), it accomplishes more. It tells the story across many of America’s most progressive cities, including my own. Columbus, Ohio remains one of the most economically and racially segregated cities in America. This despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the earlier 1948 Supreme Court ruling in Shelley v. Kraemer. The high court ruled, even in the 1940s, that the use of racially or ethnically restrictive language was not enforceable in court.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this practice can be found in Upper Arlington, a small suburb of Columbus and a community that once reflected the East Compton attitudes depicted in Them. The suburb was developed in 1913 by King and Ben Thompson atop 840 acres of land, some of which was owned by a liberated ex-slave named Pleasant Litchford who gained extraordinary wealth through a well-reputed blacksmith business. His memory is all but erased from the area. By the 1950s, deed restrictions and covenants extended the crass realities that existed prior to the 1948 ruling. Over 23 years after Shelley v. Kraemer, a Franklin County lawsuit was filed on behalf of a family just like the one depicted in Amazon’s Them. In a local report published in 2018:

In 1971, a Franklin County suit charged the Northwest Arlington Homeowners Association trustees, including John Pace, who was also president of King Thompson Realty and chairman of the Ohio Real Estate Commission, with blocking a black man from buying a home in Pace’s all-white subdivision. The trustees were found guilty, and the association was dissolved. [4]

The article goes on to explain that the language that prevented the introduction of “contentious groups” and other coded language exists even today. Today, Upper Arlington is home to nearly 36,000 suburbanites, 0.3% of whom are African-American. It remains 90% white with an average household income of $178,000 [6].

The Criticism of Them

There are a number of criticisms published of Them. Shelby Stewart, an opinion writer for the Houston Chronicle, began: “Where do we as creatives draw the line between art and filth? Them would fall under the latter.” The episodes were peppered with odd camera angles, cartoonish violence, degradation, and a trauma porn so intense that you questioned the approval process for the series. And then there were the uncanny similarities to Jordan Peele’s Us and Get Out, HBO’s Lovecraft Country and 2019’s Watchmen, the first television show to depict the 1921 Tulsa Massacre.

My criticism of the series is different.

I viewed the series from start to finish, taking notes on the true historical references that I found interesting. The eldest daughter, Ruby, was a nod to Ruby Bridges, the now-67 year old woman who desegregated public schools in Louisiana. Warren Buffett is 23 years older than the woman who desegregated schools in the American South.

Additionally, I noticed that the story echoed famed musician Nat King Cole’s troubles when he moved into his posh Los Angeles suburb in 1948. Cole’s dog was poisoned and yard vandalized upon moving in, a storyline portrayed in the series. The patriarch Henry Emory (played by Ashley Thomas) suffered from Tuskegee Experiment-like PTSD. The patriarch’s character was based on Emory Estus Holmes, a decorated veteran, RAND employee, and civil rights activist who successfully won a landmark suit against his neighbors in the 1960s. But the policies themselves were just as accurate, the real estate industry’s real-life practice of blockbusting weaved in and out of the narrative.

Although blockbusting emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, the practice was most pervasive in the decades immediately following World War II.  It was ostensibly outlawed with the passage of the Civil Rights Act (Fair Housing Act) of 1968. Nonetheless, blockbusting and similar practices persisted well beyond the enactment of the law. [5]

If you’ve ever heard Stanford economist Thomas Sowell speak on economic inequality, he often contrasts a popular narrative by highlighting the periods of African-American prosperity prior to the Civil Rights Era. He discusses Reconstruction as a key period for black progress, but also the first four decades of the 20th century.

Despite the grand myth that black economic progress began or accelerated with the passage of the civil rights laws and “war on poverty” programs of the 1960s, the cold fact is that the poverty rate among blacks fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent by 1960. This was before any of those programs began.[7]

What Sowell rarely mentions, however, is that as migration led prosperous African-American families to suburbs across the country, blockbusting, redlining, exorbitantly high mortgage rates, deed restrictions, and racial covenants contributed to reducing African-American wealth, opportunity, and proximity to the American Dream. My criticism of Them is simple. It lacks the self-awareness to realize that the anthology needed none of its supernatural storylines to achieve its truest terror.

The series would be frightening enough if only it explained the direct, implicit, and lasting impacts of many of the economically and socially-perverse policies and practices depicted throughout the series. These practices are found in today’s housing markets and C-suites today.

Breaking Covenants and Amazon’s Self-Awareness

There was a scene depicted in the series that saw Henry Emory at work as the sole African-American in a professional role in the engineering office of a defense supply manufacturer. I immediately related to Henry’s constant tension: speak up for yourself, or take it on the chin and collect a paycheck.

After a period of intense scrutiny and the culmination of days of microaggressions, the viewer follows Emory to the men’s room. He pulls 30-40 sheets of paper towels from the dispenser, carrying them to the bathroom stall. The camera stops following, and the viewer is left to overhear his muted screams out of pent up anger – the cost of brushing off every slight, underestimation, ignorant comment, or outright disrespect.

This series was produced and made available by Amazon, a company that hired its first black senior executive to its famed “S-Team” in August 2020. Alicia Boler Davis is the only one in the room; at Amazon she carries the weight that many of us are unwilling to. It’s no easy task being the only one in the room.

Amazon’s leading human resources executive, Beth Galetti, published this just five days after the release of Them and one day before Jeff Bezos’s final shareholder letter.

The inequitable treatment of Black people is unacceptable; The rights of LGBTQ+ people must be protected; and We strongly support the rights of immigrants and immigration reform, to name just a few. We are committed to fostering a culture in which inclusion is the norm for all Amazonians. […] Tough feedback is always uncomfortable to hear, but their stories remind us that we have more work to do to achieve our goals.

The criticism of Them should be that fantastical fictionalization of a pivotal era in American history was unnecessary. There is a direct line between the hardened practices of periods of explicit bigotry and the softer versions that many can experience today. The 1948 Supreme Court ruling ended housing segregation, so the rules changed to uphold the same system. The denial of proximity is at the core of many of today’s sociopolitical concerns. But it’s most pronounced in many of the C-suites and senior executive teams throughout America, where you hear phrases like “pipeline issues” and “standards” and “culture fit” pierce the air outside of the rooms where hiring decisions are made.

Them didn’t need to exaggerate the behaviors of an era or add horror tropes to the storyline to make its grand point. Opportunity is earned by hard work, proximity, favor, and luck. The show portrayed a family with a history of hard work and exceptionalism, and those two attributes are supposed to be enough. The true horror of the Amazon Prime series is clear by now. More than 70 years after the period that the show retells, our offices and neighborhoods – from Bessemer, Alabama to Seattle, Washington – still show its signs.

Nat Cole ended up living peacefully in the Los Angeles neighborhood that he refused to leave. Some neighbors relinquished their torment over time, others began to defend his humanity. Imagine if Amazon, the country’s second largest employer, took it upon themselves to finally put history behind us. Surely, others would follow.

By Web Smith | Editor: Hilary Milnes | Art: Alex Remy

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