The Long Road to Equality

Long-haul truck driving is thriving in the United States, and remains one of the surest ways into the middle class, but minorities say discrimination is rampant.
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(Photo: Getty Images)

(Photo: Getty Images)

Editor's Note: A version of this story first appeared on PSmag.com on February 4, 2016, with the headline "The Uphill Battle for Minorities in Trucking," as part of our week-long exploration of the truck-driving industry in America. This edited version was published in our March/April 2016 print issue.

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He had cruised through farmland parched by drought, blazing desert, and wide-open prairie. Now, four days into a routine cross-country journey, Michael Ware was slogging through traffic in the suburbs south of Chicago.

"Moves like that I don't get," Ware, 44, huffed from the driver's seat of his Peterbilt as a Chevy Tahoe cut him off. "They don't know how to drive in Illinois."

The comment might have been motivated by a momentary flash of road rage, but it was certainly informed by the hundreds of thousands of miles Ware has covered in 15 years of driving.

"Nothing moves without trucks. You look around: If it's manufactured, a truck touches it."

Ware, who is black, is part of the rise in minority drivers who have found their way into the trucking industry, drawn by the opportunity for decent middle-class wages and the promise of growth, and even self-employment. The trade, unlike other steady working-class jobs, has not only survived the rise of a global economy, but thrived in the United States.

"Nothing moves without trucks," says Kevin Reid, the chief executive officer of the National Minority Trucking Association. "You look around: If it's manufactured, a truck touches it."

While trucking is an easy enough industry to enter, for minority drivers, barriers soon begin to pop up. Many say they often face an omnipresent "good ol' boy" system, with discrimination par for the course in hiring decisions.

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For Ware, the first roadblock was his parents. They didn't think much of truck driving: It was simple work that did not require skill or business acumen.

"They thought it was a job anyone could do," he says. But it has been a job that suits him well. It provides a solid living, for one thing. And he loves the vantage point he has behind the wheel.

Yet Ware has discovered that truck driving makes for a hard life. He doesn't have a spouse or children. He lives in a suburb of Phoenix, or, more precisely, he has a home there that he rarely visits. He has grown weary of the offerings at truck stop diners, and it was an adjustment to learn how to curl up his 6-foot-7, 380- pound body for sleep in a tiny cabin.

Being a black man in a business long dominated by white men presents another set of hurdles. Ware has run into overt racism. He believes he has lost jobs because of his race. There have been times, he says, where he has had hours-long conversations over the radio with white drivers who couldn't tell he was black. When they saw him at a truck stop, they acted as if they didn't know him.

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Truck driving has been called a gateway to the middle class. As an occupation it seems a relic from another time, when the country's formidable working class was built on a foundation of skilled labor.

Trucks are the "veins of the American economy," according to Reid. The shoes you buy might have been stitched together in China, and the produce from the grocery store might have been harvested in Mexico, but it was largely American trucks with American drivers that brought it to you.

Trucking remains a rare occupation with low barriers for entry, stable work, and prospects to earn more over time.

"We're not making gobs and gobs of money," says Sandra Alzate, who is Latina and co-owns a dump-trucking business in Los Angeles with her husband. "But you make a decent living, and you're your own boss."

The NMTA was started by Reid in 2011 to serve the likes of Alzate and the 1.5 million other minority truck drivers in the U.S. According to the organization, the largest minority trucker group is African Americans, making up 14 percent of all drivers, followed closely by Hispanics, at just over 12 percent. Women make up just 5 percent.

With its monetary appeal, perhaps the greatest misconception about truck driving is that it requires little skill. "Most people think of the trucking industry as the dumbest people out there—'the hick that comes from the farm,'" says Bill Aboudi, a decades-long industry veteran. But the job requires much more than just driving, and not understanding that can end up getting drivers into trouble.

Truck driving requires meticulous record keeping: accounting for every minute of every day—bathroom breaks and fuel stops included, because pay is based exclusively on hours driven and miles covered. It can be easy for a driver to be taken advantage of and lose money.

"It dawned on me: Truckers are trained to drive trucks, not build businesses," Reid says.

He created the NMTA in part to teach drivers of color how to develop business plans, manage their finances, and plan for the future. Part of the organization's mission is to encourage people to recognize there is more to the industry than driving, with opportunities not only in management, but in roles like dispatching and brokering loads.

Dozens of other minority groups—like Black Truckers United and Real Women in Trucking—have started organizing on social media. Facebook pages and other destinations have cropped up for drivers to connect in hopes of raising visibility and establishing their own communities within the industry.

"We want some harmony here," says Lawrence Bell, a driver based in Arlington, Texas, and a member of Black Truckers United. Bell has made friends with other drivers on the page, and sees it as a way to help out newcomers. "It gives them a venue," he says, "to research and get under the wing of someone who knows a little bit more than them."

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Michael Ware's morning began in Shelby, Iowa, about 1,700 miles into his trip. As night set in, he hoped to cross a few more state lines before stopping in Youngstown, Ohio.

Ware was always drawn to trucks. As a kid, raised in northern New Jersey, he thought the Peterbilt was a handsome piece of machinery. Now, he's driving one.

Trucking, all in all, has afforded him a good life. But there was one encounter that's stuck with him. Years ago, he talked to the owner of a company in Arkansas who was looking for a driver to make runs to California and back. Ware, living in Oklahoma at the time, thought he was perfectly situated. The company's owner seemed to agree, and invited him out to talk in person.

Ware says he traveled to a speck of a city in the northwestern corner of Arkansas, where the business was headquartered. But when he went into the office and gave his name, he was told the owner wasn't there, and that there were no jobs available. Ware went back to his truck and drove home.

Later, looking online, he discovered that one of the men he talked to in the office was the owner of the company—the same man he had talked to on the phone.

The episode encapsulates the kind of experiences that minority drivers say are not uncommon. But it also reflects a certain strain of resilience.

There is a sense among many minority drivers that when they do run into discrimination—a racial slur, a lost job—that it is a nuisance, and it is hurtful, but it is not fatal. It is just an obstacle they must maneuver around on their way to the next opportunity.

Ware's run-in in Arkansas helped motivate him to launch Black Truckers United, the group Bell uses to connect with others. He recounted it vividly, years after the fact, as he made his cross-country haul, by now halfway across the Ohio Turnpike.

As much as it angered him, Ware never confronted the man. He never complained. He simply found another job.

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