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Podcast: Black Business and Transportation Equity

artistic rendering of Anthony Foxx

Whether at the local or federal level, Anthony Foxx knows perhaps better than anybody how transportation can forever transform a community — for better or worse.

As U.S. Secretary of Transportation for President Barack Obama and the former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, Foxx strived to modernize the American transportation landscape, recognizing how such an agenda could serve as a great equalizer for communities of color.   

“There’s a reason why we use the phrase ‘other side of the tracks,’” Foxx, now Chief Policy Officer at Lyft, says in this episode of Longitudes Radio. “These systems were used as dividers, and it’s very apparent when you go back into history … infrastructure was weaponized to reinforce the ideas of what was important in a city, who was important in a city and who wasn’t.”

The conversation with Foxx kicks off a three-part podcast series exploring how we can create more business opportunities for Black entrepreneurs — both today and tomorrow. In upcoming episodes, we’ll examine the Black business landscape through the eyes of an up-and-coming small business owner and take a more academic look at systematic, pervasive challenges unique to the Black business community.

As for Foxx, he highlights how the coronavirus pandemic brought certain policy challenges to the forefront, what has changed since his days in the Obama administration — and what hasn’t — and whether we’re on the verge of a truly breakthrough moment in the pursuit of a more just and inclusive society.

“There is a much richer conversation occurring in this country about racial unrest and the legacy of slavery and things that were subterranean,” Foxx says. “But they’re very much on the surface and in people’s minds today.”

And what about futuristic technologies like drones, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence? Foxx says we’re on the verge of a “transportation revolution,” a movement that will allow opportunistic businesses to pivot alongside society at large. 

On a personal note, Foxx harkens back to his adolescent years, when he was told he had to be “twice as good” as his peers simply because of the color of his skin — and whether he still possesses that mindset as a father now.

“I don’t want him to feel like he has to be perfect,” Foxx says of his message to his 14-year-old son. “I want him to be comfortable being himself, and I want him to be comfortable saying what he thinks … if we can give our kids the gift of owning their perspective and their worldview and being comfortable in that, that would be a great step forward.”

Podcast: Black Business and Transportation Equity

[00:00:04] Show Open


Brian Hughes [00:00:42] James, we have a very special three-part podcast series we're kicking off today. We're going to take a look at the state of Black entrepreneurship both today and on the horizon, specifically how we can close the massive opportunity gap that exists right now. We're going to do that from three different perspectives. First, we're going to look at the policy. Second, we're going to look at the issue through the eyes of a small business owner. And then lastly, we're going to take a holistic look at the entire landscape in an academic sense.


James Rowe [00:01:15] Yeah. And, Brian, we've got the perfect co-host for the series. It's Janet Stovall. She's a nationally renowned expert on the subject of diversity and inclusion. She focuses on the need for conversation and more importantly, about action. So, Janet, why don't you tell us about our first guest?


Janet Stovall [00:01:30] Well, first, thanks for inviting me back. I'm looking forward to this. Our first guest is going to be Anthony Foxx, former Secretary of Transportation for the Obama administration and former mayor of Charlotte. He's going to kick off our series by bringing his unique perspective about the inner workings of government, how change happens, why it doesn't, and what we can do to encourage actual impact with our change.


Brian Hughes [00:01:53] And for those in the audience, you might be wondering, how is transportation tied into this broader concept of equity?


Janet Stovall [00:02:00] I might be wondering the same thing. Great question.


Brian Hughes [00:02:03] Yeah and Janet and James, Tony makes this point immediately. He says, when you think of transportation infrastructure like highways and roads and, yes, even train tracks — there's a reason people use the phrase from the other side of the tracks throughout our history — these elements have almost been weaponized to separate the haves and the have nots. It's very important that we have a real conversation about this so we can find a way to move forward in a more equitable way.


Brian Hughes [00:02:34] Tony, thank you so much for joining us today. To get started, I think a lot of folks are familiar with your work in the Obama administration as the Transportation Secretary and as the Mayor of Charlotte. But can you let our audience know what you're working on these days, where your passions lie? That type of thing?


Anthony Foxx [00:02:50] Well, thanks so much for having me. I am working for the company Lyft, the ride share company and I run policy for Lyft nationally. So that involves everything from federal, state and local government work. And I've got a team of about 100 people that help support that work. I'm also serving on a few boards and continue to try to keep my interest in the transportation policy world external to Lyft.


Brian Hughes [00:03:22] And that's part of the reason why I'm so glad to have you here. I'd argue there's no one more qualified to give us a more holistic view of federal, local and business. Can you talk a little bit about how all your different perspectives have shaped your views on the various levels of power? And by that I mean the interaction between federal and local, especially as it relates to transportation.


Anthony Foxx [00:03:46] I had a great place to sit and observe the inner workings of government when I was working at the local level. In 2005, I ran for my first political office, which was the Charlotte City Council. And at the local level, you see these things converge. The federal government does a lot to support our interstate system, our aviation system, our airports and local governments have a whole collection of local roads and other transportation systems that they support. And you can see the places where that alignment works really well, and you can also see where it doesn't work so well. When I went to the federal government, I was very interested in how we could build more interconnectivity and alignment between these different levels of government. As long as one of those players isn't totally aligned, you're not going to get the big things done. And I think that's one of the big lessons I learned in government was the real importance of all the different stakeholders being really comfortable and sure of direction. Otherwise, you can't get things done.


Janet Stovall [00:04:53] Okay, let me jump in here and ask you a question, Tony. Transportation is a huge issue in Black communities, and so it's a huge issue for Black business. Talk to me a little about that, about the importance of transportation to Black business and about what we're seeing now in communities and about how transportation can help and how the lack of it can actually hurt.


Anthony Foxx [00:05:12] When we look back into the, again, the building of the interstate system or even some of our airports or our railroads, there's a reason why we use the phrase “other side of the tracks.” These systems were used as dividers. And it's very apparent when you go back into the history of places like Baltimore, where there's actually a highway project that was never finished, but nevertheless raised an African-American part of that city, that the infrastructure was weaponized to reinforce the sort of ideas of what was important in a city, who was important in a city and who wasn't. So I think that legacy needs to be understood as we think about the transportation system overall. That said, we have not made as many advances in transportation to correct that history as I would have liked. We spoke to it and worked towards remediation as a department when I was serving as Secretary. But you can't undo 50-plus years of damage and really more than 50, probably hundreds of years of damage in four years. And so, you know, what are some of the things that that I would highlight? I would highlight the fact that we're getting better at putting transit assets in places that really need them. And when I say transit assets, I'm talking more than buses. I'm talking about fixed rail systems. If you go to Los Angeles today, there's a light rail line being built in Crenshaw, which is, you know, you never would've thought that 10 years ago. But as part of that project, we had also created a work training program so that people who live in that neighborhood could participate in the construction of that system. And that has been a very successful project. You look in Pittsburgh, where a community was cut off by the highway that ran around the circumference of the city, we put a cap on that freeway that reconnects a neighborhood that had been cut off from the downtown area. And that project is one that is coming on. So there are things that we can do in the construction aspect of of transportation to reconnect these communities. I think it's really important.


Anthony Foxx [00:07:26] There's another aspect, though, which is the business inputs into those things. And you know, who's getting contracts and how does how does that help promote growth of diverse businesses? And in that respect, I'd say we have we still have a long way to go. Back in the 70s, it was popular to have programs that rewarded businesses that were literally trying to get into a different sector like transportation. And so, you know, if you were small enough, you could actually use one of the programs to be qualified as a minority-owned business. We're now at a stage where we have some minority-owned businesses that have outsized those programs. And so they lose the advantage of the minority certification. And now they're now competing against everybody, but there’s still a bit of an old boy and old girl system within the transportation sector that they're battling in. The last thing I would say is look at your transportation boards in your states. They're still not diverse. And, you know, when you're electing governors, those governors are also appointing those transportation boards, and they have enormous power to make decisions about the future of resources, contracts, as well as projects. And we need to make a point of emphasis and not just voting, but also making sure that there's diversity in the boards that do things like that within all of our states.


Brian Hughes [00:08:53] Absolutely. And it seems to me a lot of what we're ultimately pointing to in this is opportunity gap, right? And how we address many of these systematic things that have been going on for far too long. I do wonder if you could speak to obviously when you were mayor of Charlotte, it was not the easiest time. We're talking about the Great Recession and all the stuff that was on your plate and you had to deal with in terms of workforce development. I think it's fair to say that this gap gets even more exacerbated during coronavirus, for example. We see that people of color in particular are harder hit than everyone else, by and large. Do you see kind of any parallels about the decisions you're having to make during the Great Recession in terms of workforce development and building opportunities now?


Anthony Foxx [00:09:43] I think the challenges that our cities and our government and business leaders, for that matter, are facing today are much more complex than the ones that I was facing in the Great Recession. You know, the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 was driven mostly by market forces and a housing bubble. And the recovery was one that was going to be long and tortured. But we could actually see a path forward. Here, we have a public health crisis that has resulted in an economic crisis. And to some extent, we hope that if the public health crisis is abated, that will allow us to regenerate our economy. But, you know, at some point, the economic crisis caused by a public health crisis becomes a pure economic crisis, too. And we're hoping we don't get to that point. And then I would also add into the complexity that there is a much richer conversation occurring in this country about racial unrest and the legacy of slavery and things that really were subterranean in 2008 and 2009. But they are very much on the surface and in people's minds today. You know, I think if we think about what our economy should look like in the future. I do think it's going to have to be more people centered. We have to think both in terms of supply, but also in terms of demand. And we have to figure out how to try to help people stabilize in a very, very tricky time.


Janet Stovall [00:11:17] You know, when we talk about what the future holds. One area that we're really looking at closely is drones. And recently we spoke with a black drone company entrepreneur who talked to us a little bit about what the drone industry is doing and how it's huge and how it's an opportunity for Black people to actually step into technology in a way that they never have. There’s the whole autonomous vehicle world that you know a lot about.


Anthony Foxx [00:11:42] Yeah.


Janet Stovall [00:11:42] So talk to me now about what that movement toward advanced technology could mean for Black business, what it could mean for Black communities and what it could mean for Black people in general.


Anthony Foxx [00:11:53] We are at the precipice of a dramatic transportation revolution on the technology front, and it's going to evolve over the next 10 years. Drones are making an enormous amount of progress in the United States. And we're already seeing delivery of things like medical supplies into rural areas that have taken a fraction of the time. You will eventually have packages delivered and even your prescription from your pharmacy potentially by drone. So I think one of the things we'll see in ground transportation is much less emphasis on owning a car and much more emphasis on having access to one. And as that shift occurs, there will be opportunities for businesses to have these fleets and to make them available to people. For companies that service those fleets, for companies that turn those fleets around, there's going to be all sorts of opportunities. And frankly, I think the future of parking is going to change as a result of this, because if the future turns out the way I expect it to, we're going to have a much lower demand for parking, which will mean that a lot of the parking structures we have can be repurposed. So there's actually also a real estate opportunity for enterprising people that will play out over a long time. From a consumer standpoint, I think it's really exciting. Think about this. The second largest expense in most households today is transportation, and most of those costs involve owning a car. So what if we created a system where through the use of fleets, people didn't have to realize all of those expenses and could spend a much lower amount of money per household on their transportation bill, which is one of the real opportunities for families across the board.


Brian Hughes [00:13:42] And I'm really glad you used that phrase, a transportation revolution. I think we agree with that wholeheartedly. A question of access, not just the use of it, but in terms of ensuring entrepreneurs, people who are aspiring to, you know, maybe own a business in this field. How do we ensure that resources and educational tools are being spread equally? Because right now that's a major problem and there's probably a wide number of people who might be listening to this conversation say, well all that's great, but I don't even know how to get in the front door. Would you have any advice for those folks out there?


Anthony Foxx [00:14:20] When I was growing up, I had no idea what starting a business was all about. I didn't have a contest. I didn't know anybody who was an entrepreneur. I didn't know people who were out there having to put money at risk and find the money and hustle to get clients. And all that stuff was totally foreign to me. So I totally can relate to people out there who have an aspiration but who don't know how to access it. Education is certainly part of it. I think it would be smart for companies that are going to rely on suppliers and various inputs to work with our community college system across this country to create programs that help actually build a diverse base of entrepreneurs in that pipeline. The other thing I would say is that we're going to have to use the economic power that we have in in corporate America to force that supply system to be more diverse. There's nothing wrong with asking: Show me your diversity. Show me the diversity on your board. Show me the people who are going to be working on the supplies that come in to me. You want to make sure a diverse group is getting opportunities to work with you, even if they're not, you know, entrepreneurs themselves, because they may one day be.


Brian Hughes [00:15:35] Tony, I'm going to ask you either the easiest question or the most difficult question all day.


Anthony Foxx [00:15:39] OK.


Brian Hughes [00:15:40] You know, with your background, you could have done so many things. What is it about transportation in particular that was so appealing to you and why you're so passionate about it?


Anthony Foxx [00:15:49] When I was in college, I majored in History. And almost in an anthropological way, I understand the society you live in as layered with all of the historical complexities that any society would have. I believe transportation is one of the defining ways a society defines itself. I can't ride on a freeway without observing what's around it and observing in some cases what used to be around it and who used to be around it. Or a railway or an airport. It's a sector that subliminally tells us how connected we are to each other. And as a practitioner of policy in transportation, what I concern myself with was, you know, making sure it was efficient, make making sure it was effective, but also making sure it was connective tissue and that we were sending the signals to the future, that this is a country of a diverse group of people who are committed to living together and being together as one. And that's something we're still working on as a country. But if our transportation system doesn't mimic that aspiration, we are not going to be able to achieve it in any other way.


Brian Hughes [00:17:05] And to follow on that point, if we're having this conversation five years from now, are you confident that we're pointing to real, tangible progress? I mean, there's been a lot of dialogue of “is this moment actually different,” right? I think a lot of people appreciate that there are way more conversations happening, and that's a great thing. But the natural follow up to that is yeah but, are we actually going to see a real difference moving forward?


Anthony Foxx [00:17:31] Yeah. I think it's kind of up to us whether it's a breakthrough moment or not. And I'm very, very proud of the fact that we have a multi-racial, multi-cultural group of young people who observe the killing of George Floyd and use it as a moment to say, “This is enough.” We're not going to be that country anymore. And to see people from all walks of life taking on the work is very encouraging. It will ultimately require, as you point out, more than just conviction. It'll require deeds and actions and tough things that we have to figure out how to do. I have some ideas in the world of transportation.


Brian Hughes [00:18:17] I'd love to hear those.


Anthony Foxx [00:18:18] Yeah.


Brian Hughes [00:18:19] Not to cut you off. That would be outstanding.


Anthony Foxx [00:18:22] One of the things I did as transportation secretary was I got to go into different parts of the world and observe how transportation was practiced. And interestingly enough, when I went into Scandinavia, you know, which is a fairly homogenous society, I was able to see some things about how they did public input, for example, that were very different than the way we do it in the U.S. You know, public input is supposed to be a place where our community voices their views about different projects. It's supposed to be the, you know, the place where we really decide how we're going to build what we build. And in Scandinavia, there were practices where instead of saying to the public, hey, “come to the government center at two o'clock in the afternoon and meet with us for an hour to talk about the next highway project,” which, you know, who can get away from work at two o'clock in the afternoon, almost predetermines how much public input you get anyway. But these countries were doing things like going out to parks, going to coffee shops, doing public input in a way that was much more focused on trying to get a broad swath of public opinion and doing it where people already congregate, not having people have to come to the government to do it.


Janet Stovall [00:19:44] So, Tony, why Black people? Why focus on Black business? You mentioned earlier about the restorative work we're doing together at Davidson College. It's part of the Slavery and Race Commission. And to me, some of this feels like it's restorative at this point. But why in this moment do we focus on Black people in Black business? Why not Latinos? Why not women? I mean, different groups have different issues.


Anthony Foxx [00:20:11] Yeah.


Janet Stovall [00:20:12] Why Black people? Why now?


Anthony Foxx [00:20:14] My answer to that question is layered. It's layered by the fact … I want to stipulate one thing, which is that I think that the one group in this country that really doesn't get as much attention and probably is even more distanced in this culture is the Native American. And there's still a lot of repair work that needs to happen in this country around Native Americans. In the case of African Americans, one has to understand that the roots of our country and the sort of beginnings of our country, even before there was a Constitution, before there was a Declaration of Independence, there was slavery. And the way slavery worked on the psychology of both Black and white Americans is something that we still see to this day. And, you know, when you look at the officer's face as he sat with his knee on the neck of George Floyd, the sense I got was that this was a man who was enjoying doing this to some someone else. And that level of visceral hate is something that was inculcated as part of slavery. This country has not yet owned up to the history of this and that the damage that was done not just to African Americans, but to white Americans in terms of the psychology of white superiority, that has really laced through so many institutions in this country. We defined or were defined by this institution of slavery in a way that no other group was. And as a result of that, there's a particular stigma about being Black in this country that continues to this day. So, you know, the interesting thing, Janet, is that and I was thinking about myself in the context of this, because in you know, this, too, I'm sure it was the same in your household. But, you know, you were told that you have to be twice as good. You know, you have to, you know, work as hard and you have to you know, in some cases you have to recognize that society is not going to want you to be successful, but you have to succeed anyway. And so I grew up with this kind of callous around me, around these issues and in a way ignored a lot of things that this younger generation is saying we're not going to ignore that. And, you know, I think there's power in that. But, you know, as I think about my own life, you know, I'm thinking, well, am I contributing to this loop that we're in as a country by not doing what these young people are doing, which is to start calling these things out more and trying to make people more aware. But in my generation and yours, there was a lot of lot of shrapnel that came at you. If you did that, you know that "That's not a problem why are you talking about that?" You know "What are you trying to do?" You know, those kinds of things were conversations you had have. Now, I think the rest of America is seeing that this this is problematic. It's not just problematic for Black folks. It's problematic for America to have this sort of stigmatized class of people that, you know, that have their ceilings limited by society, that underestimates their capacity to participate fully.


Janet Stovall [00:23:44] Great answer.


Brian Hughes [00:23:45] You know, you're talking about the family. You're in a different role now as a father, right?


Anthony Foxx [00:23:50] Yeah.


Brian Hughes [00:23:50] You talked about, you know, when you were growing up, you felt this pressure to be twice as good. You could argue it would be even higher than that, quite frankly. Do you think this is something that your kids are dealing with? Have you talked to them about kind of that perspective? And do you see any progress in that respect at all?


Anthony Foxx [00:24:08] Yeah, it's interesting. My kids are growing up in a totally different context than I did economically in terms of the schools that they are attending and the kind of diversity that they are experiencing. And I would say that, you know, in the case of my son, who's 14, it is interesting because I want to teach him to do things a little differently than I did. And in particular, what I mean is I don't want him to feel like he has to be perfect. You know, that's one of the things that I think is maybe a casualty of the way I was reared was that I felt very much the pressure to be perfect. And I admired my friends who were very imperfect and could live imperfectly. And in many cases, they were legacies. They could continue to grow and be more economically successful than I could because their starting place was different. But for my son, I want him to be comfortable being himself, and I want him to be comfortable saying what he thinks at various times and calling things out when he needs to. And that means, you know, not trying to be objectively perfect. It means trying to be perfectly yourself. And, you know, if we can give our kids the gift of owning their perspective and their worldview and being comfortable in that, that would be, I think, a great step forward.


Janet Stovall [00:25:37] Love it.


Brian Hughes [00:25:37] Well, Tony, this is the part of the program we go, "What haven't we asked you about?" Is there is there anything that if you could leave with our audience that we weren't able to bring up that you would like to? We can call them imparting words of wisdom and make it the official segment of the show.


Anthony Foxx [00:25:55] Yeah.


Brian Hughes [00:25:56] What else is on your mind?


Anthony Foxx [00:25:57] In the moment we're in, you know, there's lots of stuff to worry about. There's a public health crisis. There's an economic crisis, and there's social unrest. And in terms of the social unrest, I would just say this. We are going to be preconditioned not to solve this. And I don't say that with a pessimistic mindset. I just say it with the perspective that our psychology around race, our psychology around poverty, our psychology around so many things is so deep set that if given a choice, we're going to do symbolism, and we're going to do things that kind of make us feel better in the short term. And it's going to be awful hard for us to dig deeper and to figure out meaningful ways to change things in a fundamental way. And what I would just say is, is that we should be skeptical about what makes us feel good in solving this because that skepticism is going to lead us to making more fundamental changes and thinking deeper about how to solve these things. I think there's so many ways that people can learn more about what's wrong. There are books that one can read. I just reread “Invisible Man,” which is one of the great, great books that I think really lays out race in a in a very clear way. But, I think reading is great. I think talking to people is great. I think some of the symbolism that's under discussion right now, Congress just passed a bill to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol. Oh, that's good. But at the end of the day, we're going to have to figure out how to reconcile all of this and what to do about it. And my hope is and I'm very much a view of the view that, you know, whether you live in Appalachia or you live in downtown Atlanta, we're gonna have to find a way to be one country, just like our soldiers, our men and women overseas fighting wars may come from lots of places, but when they're on the battlefield, they have to be brothers and sisters. And we've got to find our way there. And the plain reality is that there are tactical things that need to happen in this country. You know, we can't be a democracy and make it harder for people to vote. That's a fundamental thing. But we're having that conversation about, you know, what barriers to voting there ought to be. We are a capitalist economy, but a capitalist economy depends on competition. And when you limit the ability of your neighbors to compete, you're limiting the ceiling of our overall economy. So there are lots of fundamental questions that we need to answer. But all of them are in service of being a better country, a better economy, a better democracy and a better light for the world. So this work is very serious. You know, it's and I think every single family, every single person has a role in it.


Brian Hughes [00:28:51] We just finished part one of our series devoted to Black business. Make sure you come back next week for part two, which tackles the issue through the eyes of an up-and-coming Black entrepreneur. And if you like what you heard today, make sure to leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify or Stitcher. Or you can always find us directly at UPS.com.


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