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.
“It’s moves like that I don’t get,” Ware, 44, huffed from the driver’s seat of his Peterbilt as a woman in a Chevy Tahoe cut him off. “They don’t know how to drive for nothing in Illinois.”
The comment might have been motivated by a momentary flash of road rage, but it was certainly informed by the tens, if not the hundreds, of thousands of miles he has covered in 15 years of driving.
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—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 old boy” system, with discrimination par for the course in hiring decisions.
How do you push back, then, when an industry is stacked against you?
Bind together and create your own networks.
For Ware, his first roadblock was his parents. They didn’t think much of truck driving; it was simple work that did not require skill, education, 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 had behind the wheel, passing by sights like Devil’s Tower, the rock formation in Wyoming that was featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Yet Ware has discovered truck driving makes for a hard life. He doesn’t have a spouse, girlfriend, or children. He lives in Gilbert, Arizona, 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 truck 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 said, where he has had hours-long conversations over the radio with white drivers who couldn’t tell by his voice that he was black. When they saw him later at a truck stop, they acted as if they didn’t know him.
In an effort to push past racism and forge connections with other drivers, Ware started a Facebook group called Black Truckers United, anchored by the motto, “Unity through diversity.” So far, it has just over 1,000 members. Sometimes, it is a place to vent. More than that, however, drivers involved say it is a landing page of support, where they can talk with others who understand life on the road, offer advice to colleagues, and encourage newcomers who need help finding their way in the industry.
Ware said he started the group because he was frustrated by the lone wolf attitude pervasive among black drivers. “It’s just one and that’s it,” as he described it, “I can do bad all by myself. I don’t need anyone else.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” Ware said, as he crept his way through the village of South Holland, Illinois. “Not at all. We’re all in this together.”
Truck driving has been called a gateway to the middle class. It is an occupation that is almost a relic from another time, when America's formidable working class was built on a foundation of skilled labor.
Trucks are the “veins of the American economy,” according to NMTA’s 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 that comes with low barriers for entry, stable work, and prospects to earn more over time.
“You’re going to, right off the shoot, be making money,” says Bill Aboudi. Aboudi, who is Palestinian, serves as president of AB Trucking in Oakland and is a decades-long industry veteran.
“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.”
NMTA, which is based in College Park, Georgia, was started by Reid in 2011 to serve the 1.5 million minority truck drivers in the U.S. According to the organization, the largest minority trucker group is African Americans, making up 14 percent of drivers, followed closely by Hispanics, at just over 12 percent. Women make up just five percent.
Truckers say they can see increased diversity on the road. They see more drivers of color at truck stops, and hear more languages being spoken. Aboudi says he has encouraged many of his Spanish-speaking employees to learn English, but they responded that—at least in California—they were able to get by just fine with Spanish.
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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,” Aboudi says. “The hick that comes from the farm.” 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. It can be easy for a driver to be taken advantage of, lose money, and fall into debt.
“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 encouraging 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 trucker groups—like Black Truckers United and Real Women in Trucking—have started organizing on social media as well. 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. He has heard from some drivers who disagree with minorities forming groups, but he added, “I can’t see why people feel threatened with a certain group of people trying to empower themselves.”
He 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.”
Anthony Johnson, an owner-operator who has been driving for almost three decades, recently joined Black Truckers United and has also forged his own off-line group of trucker allies.
“If one of our trucks go down, we have each other,” says Johnson, 51. It happened to him recently: He had a breakdown 150 miles from home. “I called one of my buddies from my circle,” he says. “I basically got my trailer towed home for free.”
Trucking is a meritocracy. At least, that is the belief of veterans of the industry. If you stay on top of your business and keep a clean driving record, you’ll be able to land jobs. But for drivers of color and for women, it seems, this isn’t necessarily so. Almost everyone has a story of discrimination, whether it’s opportunities they lost, couldn’t access to begin with, or how they were treated by others in the field.
“You’re going to run into roadblocks from customers who don’t want to deal with you because you’re a certain ethnicity or a certain religion,” Aboudi says. “Most of the customers don’t really care. They want you to be professional. But there are a few. It’s a personal relationship, and if you don’t have that—if you’re not white—you’re not going to get the account. I’m afraid some of that’s still out there.”
Johnson has noticed that during slow months, black drivers like him have a harder time finding work than white drivers who have more connections. “They get to keep moving in the winter,” he says. “If you’re not in that clique, you’re really going to have to hustle just to get a load.”
Bell says many companies have more pragmatic concerns than race. “They’re trying to get their freight hauled as cheap as possible,” he says. “That’s all. They don’t care what you look like.”
Still, discrimination does exist, Bell says. His CB radio has been broken for some time now, and he’s in no hurry to get it replaced. He is tired of the offensive commentary he frequently hears coming over the airwaves. “I don’t want to hear all that mess,” he says. “It's still a ‘good old boy’ club. It can be insidious.”
Alzate says similar hardships exist for women trying to establish credibility in the industry. (After all, women make up just a tiny fraction—0.03 percent—of transportation firm owners.) She says that, often when she makes bids, she sees the jobs end up going to men. “I just feel they think it’s more of a male thing, and they don’t really take my bidding seriously,” she says. “It’s tough, but you go on to the next job.”
Reid says the industry, slowly, is becoming more hospitable to minorities and women, and has certainly improved.
“I have to say the [trucking] industry has made great strides, but it still has a long way to go,” Reid says. “Those challenges exist. There still is racism in the industry. The playing field is not level.”
Whatever the discrepancy in opportunity, the answer of many in the industry is just to keep pushing. There are other jobs out there. And they will catch up eventually. “We prove ourselves,” Aboudi says. “You have to be on time. You have to do the job.”
Michael Ware’s morning began in Shelby, Iowa, about 1,700 miles into his trip. As night set in on this Tuesday in September, he hoped to cross a few more state lines before stopping in Youngstown, Ohio.
Ware was always drawn to trucks. As a kid, born in New York City and raised in Northern New Jersey, he thought the Peterbilt was an especially handsome piece of machinery. Now he’s driving one.
He has grown accustomed to life on the road. He listens to music (jazz and the rap he grew up on, like Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, Run DMC) and to audiobooks (“I’m a sci-fi nut,” he says). And he is trying to drop some weight and improve his health, which can be difficult in a job centered on sitting for hours on end.
Trucking, all in all, has afforded him a good life. He has made friends from a variety of backgrounds. He gets to travel, to see parts of the country he never would otherwise. And he has enough experience now that, when he does run into turbulence, he is able to barrel through it. “My driving record and experience speaks for itself,” he says. “I know what I’m worth, as far as driving is concerned, so I don’t even sweat it.”
But there was one encounter that’s stuck with him. It was another instance, he says, when a person on the other end of the line couldn’t tell by his voice that he was black.
A few years ago, he talked to the owner of a trucking company in Arkansas. The company was looking for a driver who could make runs from Arkansas to California, and Ware, who was living in Tulsa 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. He went into the office and gave them his name. A man said he did not know about any meeting, 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 the man he talked to in the office was the owner of the company—the same man he had talked to on the phone.
Ware was furious. “All I felt was pissed off,” he says. “Now, my time [had] been wasted.”
The episode encapsulates the kind of experiences that minority drivers say is not uncommon. But it also reflects a certain strain of resilience.
There is a sense among minority drivers that, when they do run into discrimination—when they hear a racial slur, or they don’t get a job because they’re a woman—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. There is optimism that, however deeply rooted some barriers might be, things will improve. The networks minority drivers are building are still fairly young, and will likely continue to take root and flourish.
Ware’s run-in in Arkansas helped motivate him to launch Black Truckers United. He recounted it vividly, years after the fact, as he made his cross-country haul, by now halfway across the Ohio Turnpike.
Still, as much as it angered him, Ware never confronted the man. He never complained. He simply found another job.
The Keep on Truckin' project is an effort to shine a light on the past, present, and future of the truck-driving industry in America, exploring all facets of our most pivotal, and overlooked, economic engine.