raceAhead: June 21, 2016

June 21, 2016, 1:10 PM UTC

Ed Welburn, GM’s vice president of global design, recently announced his retirement after 44 years at the company. Welburn is just the sixth design chief in GM’s 108-year-history, the first African American auto designer and the highest ranking African American at any auto company in the world. He currently leads a network of ten design centers in seven countries, and a team of more than 2,500 creative professionals – based in the U.S., Germany, South Korea, China, Australia, Brazil and India.

He is responsible for the Camaro redesign and the latest Corvette model. Car and Driver magazine has called him “the man who brought beauty back to GM.”

But Welburn started out as a black kid from suburban Philly who was mad for cars. And his success is an object lesson for what happens when powerful people conspire to remove obstacles from the path of the passionate and the talented. “I fell in love with a Cadillac concept car as a kid,” recalls Welburn, who populated his room with drawings, models and car kits, built and re-configured with scant regard for the written instructions. When he was 11, he boldly wrote a letter to a GM executive saying he hoped to work there one day. What did he need to do, specifically? “I got an answer,” he said.

And the advice was specific: Keep sketching and get yourself to Howard University.

There is a poignant history between the US automakers and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which helped prepare young black engineers for technical careers in auto manufacturing. By hiring at all levels throughout the Great Migration of the 20th century, the automakers played a starring role in helping black Americans transition themselves from the servant class, in the agricultural south, to the middle class, in the industrial north.

When Welburn entered Howard University’s fine arts program in 1969 – not engineering – he was part of the tail end of a wave of black professionals being groomed for auto jobs. His classmates included Debbie Allen and Felicia Rashad, who expressed no interest in cars. “But the professors had such a deep relationship with GM, they were able to fine-tune my curriculum to help me prepare me for a career there.”

He started as an intern in 1971, and was hired on full time in 1972, right before the oil crisis triggered massive layoffs and legendary lines at gas pumps. “I have lived through many interesting times at GM,” he says simply. And, he was the only black person on the design team.“Everyone wanted to see what the black guy was all about. The only other black person they seemed to know was J.J. from ‘Good Times,’” he said.

For more on Welburn’s historic rise and how he’s removed obstacles for others, click here.

On Point

Brazil’s biggest bankruptcy  filed
In a move that has observers forecasting increasing doom for Brazil’s economy, Oi, a telecom company, filed for the largest bankruptcy in the country’s history. Oi is Brazil’s largest fixed-line phone carrier, and struggled under mandates to expand services in a deepening recession. A record number of Brazilian companies filed for bankruptcy in 2015.

Sotomayor: A dissent supreme
Police reform advocates were disappointed yesterday, when the Supreme Court issued a decision in the case of Utah v. Strieff that added a significant loophole to the “unreasonable seizure” provision of the Fourth Amendment: Illegal police searches can be legitimized if a previous warrant is discovered later. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a blistering and historic dissent that referenced Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Airbnb’s new fine print makes lawsuits harder for black guests

As Airbnb struggles to handle claims of discrimination against black guests on their site, the company has quietly shored up their class-action litigation policies, making it nearly impossible for customers to band together for change. In March, the company updated its terms of service policies to include language that said users must now waive their rights to sue; starting last month, users were unable to log in to Airbnb services until they agreed to the new terms.
New York Times

Tech cements bias in every system now
danah boyd, the technologist and researcher (who legally changed her name so that it is lower case), raises serious issues in this piece on the inherent racism of coding in a world that requires that digital geniuses move fast, break things and iterate.  Exploring the ambitious reach of algorithmic influence – in everything from serving ads to predicting criminal behavior, technology is powerful and ever-present, she argues. Do we understand the biases and limitations of the system and the output?

Landmark case alarms Canadian mining community
In 2009, Adolfo Ich, a Mayan Q’eqchi’ community leader was shot and killed by a security guard during a protest at a nickel mine in Guatemala owned by HudBay Minerals, a Canadian mining firm. As corruption charges have derailed a murder trial in Guatemala, a new landmark series of negligence lawsuits have been filed in Ontario, Canada. It’s the first time Canadian mining companies have faced liability claims for actions at overseas subsidiaries.
Toronto Star


The Woke Leader

When father will never know best
In a poignant essay, writer Lilian Min explores the new divide felt by so many first-generation Americans. How do you manage when the person who raised you, and raised you well, offends your notions of social equity, race, gender roles, and justice? Raised in a middle class family, within an “East Asian diaspora bubble in Central New Jersey,” she feels herself growing away from her family and wonders how to navigate the often difficult patriarchy of a family that oppresses as much as it protects.
The Establishment

This rapper is not special
The overarching message of this fascinating profile of rapper Vince Staples is that he is not special, but then again, neither are you. “If you act regular, they treat you regular,” he says. And it’s good to be regular. Jeff Weiss goes deep with the culturally and politically aware former gang member, who is both unsparing with fans on social media and with his messages within his music. He also has a good credit score.
The Fader

Frank Ocean on the Orlando shootings
His message is short, brutal and desperately on point. Rapper and songwriter Frank Ocean took to Tumblr to reflect on the Orlando massacre in a message that was part prayer, part protest and all heart. “I read in the paper that my brothers are being thrown from rooftops blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs for violating sharia law,” it begins.


Where I come from, there's no common enemy, there's no "why." There's no, ‘I hate white people.’
—Vince Staples