Black in America – Derek Fields
It’s a sad and gloomy time in the world today, especially in our home of the United States of America. Due to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the world-wide movement and uproar since injustice began, it’s high time and way past due that we take a good solemn heartfelt look at systemic racism and injustice in the United States. This can easily be attributed to America’s Institutional Value Systems, which includes eurocentrism (the belief and practice rooted in the notion that European culture is superior to all others), androcentrism (the belief and practice rooted in the notion that manhood is superior to womanhood), and classism (unfair treatment of people because of their social or economic class). In addition, the alleged fabricated letter of Willy Lynch written in 1712, has been embedded in the mindset of racist, white Americans and used to govern how Blacks have been treated historically and today in the United States. The fire has been lit and this one will be hard to extinguish until change and progress are made. If you understood the struggles and social injustices endured by Black Americans historically in the United States, but also knew of the great contributions that we’ve made to this country, you would understand the disappointment, rage and anger of why we’re upset as to what’s still happening in today’s society.
Through my own eyes of living on this earth for 53 years, I can tell you that it’s not been easy and had it not been for a proper upbringing, a stable home and family, I could’ve easily been one of the many statistics; on the street, in prison, or dead. Black men today make up a total of 6% of the population in the United States but nearly 40% of us fill up today’s prisons. Wouldn’t you call that a gross disparity? I grew up with a single mom in Columbus, Ohio (the community of Southfield and a Black neighborhood) until the age of 10. During that period, community was defined as general support for one another with the same common needs, goals and beliefs. Parents could trust neighbors to watch their kids while they worked late, and they would always know what was going on in the neighborhood both good and bad because parents communicated with one another often. As a young boy, my mom, Debi, was my biggest role model and someone I will look up to for the rest of my life. She was amazing. She worked two full-time jobs (Electrical Operator and Beautician) to ensure that my sister Kim and I had food on the table, clothes on our backs and could partake in extracurricular activities. I was always very active playing sports, including both football and basketball. As I continued down the path at a young age, most of the culture I knew was Black, except for a few of teachers that I had in early grade school. Since that was the environment and world that I lived in, I never thought my life would be any different. That all changed when my mother married my stepfather, William A. Fields Jr, who lived in Worthington, Ohio, where the population of Black Americans was less than 1.5%. When I refer to my father, this is the man I reference because he built me into the person I aspired to be today. This turning point of my life transformed me personally, culturally, and socially. In addition, it gave me insight on the types of experiences I would encounter in life for being Black, an understanding of social economics because of the neighborhood we lived in, and how challenging some of my interactions would be with white Americans. For clarity, I would be moving from an all-Black neighborhood into an all-white neighborhood in the city of Worthington. Because of my mother and father’s middle-class status, we lived in affluent communities. My father set the tone for expectations and accountabilities while living in his household. We were expected to complete our daily chores, maintain a B average, and be in the house before the streetlights came on. As I think about that experience, it aided me in becoming self-disciplined (I paid for my own first car.), well organized (I played high school sports and worked a part time job at the same time.) and goal oriented (I earned many awards and a basketball scholarship). My father was a very strong and confident man, good looking, intelligent and had established himself very well in the Worthington community. He started his career at a manufacturing company of steel parts, Worthington Steel, now Worthington Industries. After a seven-year tenure and being only one of two Blacks out of five hundred employees, he transitioned to his dream job as a fire-fighter, where he retired and ended his career after becoming the first Black Chief of Fire in the history of the city of Worthington. Succeeding retirement and as result of his exceptional leadership skills, he was recruited to be the Interim Chief of Fire for an all Caucasian Fire Department in Westerville, Ohio. In his brief time there, he spearheaded multiple trainings and developed best practices for the department while the township sought to recruit a new Chief. During my first few years of living in Worthington, where I would finish elementary, junior high, and high school, I always felt uncomfortable being the only Black person in the classroom because the environment never felt natural to me. However, over time, I became numb to it since it was my new norm. What that experience taught me, considering I had always lived in a Black environment, was never to judge anybody for the color of their skin but for the person they are. More importantly, it enlightened me that everyone has their own personal beliefs in life and people aren’t born prejudiced, they’re taught it. This has been the credence that has attributed to my success today. Growing up in Worthington, there always seemed to be two points of view in respect to how I was perceived by my white peers. On the one hand, since I earned good grades and was the star athlete on the junior high and high school basketball teams, I was put in the exceptional box (fits in socially) because I was already popular, recognized in the news media for my outstanding play on the basketball court, and had built some really close friendships with Caucasian peers. In contrast, there were the pretenders and misunderstood. The pretenders only professed to like me because their peers did, and they didn’t want to feel the pressure of being categorized as prejudiced by other popular students. The misunderstood would be described as students who I thought were my friends but continuously made derogatory remarks about Black people in front of me, only to say, “oh, not you Derek, you’re different.” I never knew whether to get irate or just shake my head in laughter because of their ignorance. I chose the latter. When it came to my teachers in the classroom, all of whom were Caucasian, I always felt their genuine support for my educational growth and more importantly, they held me accountable to the same level of standards as the white students. I appreciated that and used it as a motivating factor to ensure I excelled. One reason they liked socializing with me was because of my success in sports, specifically basketball, and the second, was truly feeling compelled to ensure I succeeded with my white peers given the limited number of Blacks who attended the school. I leveraged both my athletic skills on the basketball court, being the only All-American Black player to be named to the Street and Smith Basketball magazine from Worthington High School and my classroom skills, where I earned a 3.4 GPA and received a basketball scholarship to Northern Kentucky University in the summer of 1985.
My college experience gave me an even greater perspective on race relations as I attended a campus of ten-thousand Caucasian students of which only fifty were Black. This experience was so significant because it was progress that had never been attempted in this school’s athletic history, where for the first time ever, the University recruited seven Black athletes to play on its men’s basketball team. The men’s coach, Mike Beitzel, was defying the normalcy because he saw the opportunity to win at a level that was needed to compete in the best Division II conference at the time, the Great Lakes Valley conference. In his eyes, winning had no color. After three winning seasons, coach Beitzel went on to another coaching opportunity. Prior to my senior year, the school hired Ken Shields, who continued the momentum and recruitment of Black players, winning several conference championships throughout his career. He was a player’s coach and just a tremendous human being. I attribute a lot of my basketball success as a senior to him because he made me a better player. I’ll always have love for both him and coach Beitzel. During my four years as a student-athlete, I, as well as my Black teammates, endured various racism challenges on campus. It wasn’t unusual for us to stay in pairs or groups for the simple fact that we were Black. We created our own foundation, brotherhood, and community to ensure we were successful in the classroom, on the basketball court, and could protect one another. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary, as we walked to practice together for someone to scream the “N” word at us. Conversely, there were other times we might have someone stop and ask us for an autograph. No matter how you look at it, we had to earn our respect just for being Black whether that was on the basketball court, in the classroom, or model citizens going for a bite to eat. Over time, we did earn that right with our performance on the court and in the classroom, our leadership on campus, and our work in the community. With that said, we ended up having four winning seasons, all seven Black players graduated with degrees and four out of seven of my teammates (Tracey Davis, James Matthews and George Smith) including me, made history by being the first ever chartered line and Black Greek fraternity (Alpha Phi Alpha, Fraternity, Inc.) on NKU’s campus. The other three non-basketball players were Andre Golden, Jeff Chapman and Stepphone Mack for a total of seven men. We had done the unthinkable and had also followed in the footsteps of our founding fathers, who began their journey in 1906 at Cornell University, which was a predominately white campus, where seven men recognized the need for a strong Brotherhood between Black Americans. Not only was it an amazing achievement for us, it is also history that will live in my heart forever and set the stage for what is now the future on this campus. Today, after thirty-two years of our accomplishment, there are six Black Fraternities and one Black Sorority at NKU. My fraternity brothers and I are truly proud. None of this happens without the leadership and mentorship of Andrá R. Ward, President, Chief Culture and Transformation Officer at The Khafre Ward Corporation. He led me and my fraternity brothers down the path of uniting with the University and other white fraternities to drive synergies that created equality on campus and in the community at NKU. On a personal note, I cherished my time on campus and walked away with a degree and great relationships with various people of diverse backgrounds. In addition, I was selected as the President of our first Greek Alpha Phi Alpha chapter, Rho Gamma, on NKU’s campus, I earned NABC All-American and Great Lakes Valley Conference Player of the year status in 1989, set the all-time single season scoring record (664 points – 23.7pts) and was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the University. After being drafted as a seventh-round draft pick by the San Jose Jammers of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), now the National Basketball Developmental League (NBDL) and not living my dream of playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA), I’ve been blessed to fall back on my college education and life experiences to prepare for my next chapter in “corporate America.” All things considered, I’ve had the good fortune for working for some of the world’s largest brands that include Kraft Foods, Sara Lee Corporation, Disney Consumer Products, Warner Media and now Rehrig Pacific. You may be asking yourself the question of how I’ve been successful as a Black man in America. In my experience, it’s been attributed to several things: dedication and great work ethic, establishing a great network, having great mentors and the willingness for someone to give me a chance. At Disney Consumer Products, that opportunity was given to me by Bruce Morrison, SVP of Sales and Marketing and now President at Trends, International. Bruce challenged me in areas where I needed to grow and develop. More importantly, he believed in my competencies and promoted me from the Director of Sales role I had as an individual contributor to a Director role of leading and managing people. That responsibility equated to a book of US and global business accounting for over $750MM in revenue for a major toy retailer. This role permitted me to lead, strategize and manage various categories which included Toys, Home Entertainment and Video Games. My success in this role enabled me to demonstrate the authoritative, change management and business acumen skills that I possessed, but the organization had never recognized, with the exception of Bruce. After gaining a great deal of experience at Disney, I was given a major opportunity as the VP of Sales at Warner Brothers Consumer Products, now Warner Media. Pam Lifford, President of Warner Media, placed trust and confidence in my talent, experience and skill set. She hired me to be a change agent, brand ambassador and role model for the division. I led a mature sales team and was responsible for over $1B in revenue. One of my major customers included Walmart, the largest retailer in North America. This recipe has been a great foundation for me and if any of you have seen my efforts here at Rehrig, I hope that you can appreciate and understand my passion. I want there to be an opportunity for the next Derek Fields and the next and the next.
I recognize that I would never be in this position today without the history and injustices that my ancestors endured. I’m under the impression that these things needed to happen before baby steps could be taken to move forward. This is important for me to share so that you have some perspective on past race relations and how they impact today’s movement. In 1921 there was a devastation in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District, known as Black Wall Street. Here, a wave of racially motivated violence destroyed an affluent Black American community which was seen as a threat to white-dominated American capitalism. In short, because it was against the law for Blacks to shop at white-owned stores, Black entrepreneurs built a dynamic business hub comprised of thirty-five square city blocks. Because this was progress and prosperity for Black Americans, it created both fear and jealousy in the white community. To ensure these businesses would not thrive, an alleged encounter between a Black man and white woman in an elevator had been reported that stirred major controversy (history reports that the Tulsa Tribune reported without any facts) and whites in the area refused to wait for any investigation and sparked two days of unprecedented racial violence destroying the Black community. Since Blacks were outnumbered, they were unable to protect their businesses and homes as whites burned them down as well as looted their goods. On the contrary, there were positive stories in history that gave Black Americans hope for change. One of those stories is of the great Jesse Owens, a Black man who won four gold medals during the time that Adolf Hitler’s intention was to use the games to demonstrate Aryan superiority. We all know that Hitler refused to shake Owens’ hand but that did not stop the German public from adoring him. In fact, one of the Germans, Carl Ludwig (“Luz”) Long ended up being one of Owens closest friends and was the main reason Owens won the long jump. Carl recommended to him that he use a towel in front of the take-off board after Owens foot faulted on his second attempt. I don’t think anybody would have imagined this type of sportsmanship. What a great exhibit of camaraderie between two competing athletes of very different backgrounds. It’s the type of unity that should exist today across the United States.
Today, as the country continues to try and build upon race relations, we can absolutely agree that Black Americans have seen some progress since the riots of LA in 1992. First and foremost, Colin Powell became the first Black American to be appointed Secretary of State, under George W. Bush in 2001. Furthermore, on January 20, 2009, history was made in the United States, when Barack Obama, became the first Black American man to be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. Moreover, in 2013, “The Black Lives Matter Movement” came into existence with the mission to “eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” In August 2020, Kamala Harris, became the first Black woman to be included on the presidential ticket. Is that progress? Absolutely! Are we satisfied? No! Because we continue to witness police brutality and murdering of our innocent Black brothers and sisters. Names like Breonna Taylor, age 26, (2020) who was home sleeping and unarmed when three plainclothes officers broke into what they thought was a home carrying drugs. She was shot eight times and died in her hallway. There were no drugs found. Today, no officers have been arrested and we are still waiting for justice. Also, Atatiana Jefferson, age 28, (2019) who was shot and killed innocently through the window of her home and in the presence of her eight-year old nephew. The police were responding to a call from a neighbor who reported that Jefferson’s front door had been left open. Action taken: The officer resigned and was later indicted on murder charges. This is progress for sure, but it won’t bring back an innocent life. Then there’s Botham Jean, age 26, (2018) who was sitting in his own home eating ice cream, when an off-duty police officer entered his apartment, “mistakenly believing,” she claimed, that the apartment was hers and he was a dangerous intruder. Action taken: The officer was found guilty of murder and sentenced to only 10 years in prison. The maximum sentence available was 99 years. How about Ahmaud Arbery, age 25, (2020)? While he was running in his own neighborhood, he was shot and killed by two men who claimed they thought he looked like a suspect in several break-ins. Action taken: Three men indicted on murder charges and another innocent Black life gone. Rayshard Brooks, age 27, (2020) was shot in the back and killed at a Wendy’s after an altercation with police for being asleep in his car while at the drive-thru and not passing a breathalyzer test. Action taken: The police officer has been fired and charged with murder; however, he had been given an opportunity for a $500,000 bond because the judge communicated that she didn’t think he was a flight risk or would intimidate witnesses. History of this officer had shown a reprimand for previous firearms violation in 2016. Finally, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Jacob Blake, age 29, was shot in the back seven times as he walked away from an altercation with police. Action taken: To date, we don’t have all the facts, and we’re still waiting on an outcome for the officers who were involved. The video footage clearly shows this man being shot at point-blank range. I want to put this into perspective. In 2015, Dylann Roof, who is Caucasian, murdered nine innocent Black people at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina. After being taken into custody, the Shelby Police purchased Burger King for him because he communicated that he was hungry. More recently, a 17-year-old, white male, shoots and kills two protestors on a street in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Countless people witness and video him walking down the public street with a semi-automatic long gun strapped over his shoulder with his hands up, but the police don’t arrest him. These incidents are examples of how far we still have to go in terms of racism and injustice. It’s the main reason Colin Kaepernick took a knee in 2016 and the reason you’re seeing the protestors continuing their march after the murder of George Floyd. Americans of all races are speaking out which is astounding, and people need to be held accountable for their actions. I believe the protestors will continue to be relentless until they feel like their voices are heard and plans are put in place for action. Over the last several months, it’s been exciting to see the cooperation, apologies, support, and acknowledgment by various Fortune 500 companies, major Universities and sport leagues, such as the NBA WNBA, NFL, NHL and MLB. America will always be stronger together, regardless of race or the color of a person’s skin.
Having grown up Black in America, I’ve witnessed and endured a little bit of everything, but I’ve never let that define who I am or how I treat someone. That’s not how I was raised. What I can tell you is that I feel like Rehrig Pacific is turning the corner when it comes to understanding more about race relations. Will Rehrig took a chance on hiring me because he believed I was the best qualified candidate for the job, regardless of race. From the first day I started with the company, I’ve felt nothing but support, trust, respect, love, and an integral part of this great family. There’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t thank me for being here and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank him for the opportunity he gave me. I won’t let him down. My experience here has been outstanding and I know that’s the culture the company wants all of its Black employees to feel. As a leadership team, we’ve already begun having discussions on how our company and its people can continue to be better in the support and opportunities for Black Americans. We absolutely have some work to do, but I’m very optimistic on how we’ll proceed moving forward as an organization. In addition to that, effective immediately, I will be leading a new group of Black employees on a monthly call to discuss personal feelings, work related items and financial goals. The name of the group will be called Cultural Club. I’ve been given the opportunity and a platform to give back to my community, so it’s important to me that I do whatever I can to ensure our people understand, learn, and feel good about their future here for years to come. Will’s commitment, as well as mine, are for our Black employees to have a voice and to also be comfortable interacting with people of their own race. Finally, I’ve been asked by several of you on what you might be able to do better to serve and support Black Americans. While I’d like to be able to give you that answer, my recommendation for you is to do some research and educate yourself with Black history facts. There’s a lot of information that will give you greater perspective. Read books, watch Black historical movies, and most important of all, don’t believe everything you hear and see in mainstream media. We are in unprecedented times today, but I’m excited about the position that Rehrig Pacific is taking and can’t wait to see what the future holds over the next several years.