2020 racial strife underscores challenges minority auto dealers still face

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Karmala Sutton has had a crash course in how to wade through unpredictable situations in her first year as a dealer manager.

There’s the coronavirus pandemic, of course. The political climate is so heated that Sutton blocked Fox News and CNN from the waiting area TV to cut down on complaints, leaving customers to watch home remodelings on HGTV instead.

And Sutton’s store, Honda of Kenosha in Bristol, Wis., is one of 265 Black-owned dealerships in the U.S. at a time when she believes the nation is in the middle of a new civil rights movement.

The killing of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis in May after a police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes, kick-started an uprising that spread across the world and pushed issues of police brutality and systemic racism to the forefront. A police shooting in Kenosha that paralyzed another Black man, Jacob Blake, in August brought those issues even closer to the doors of Sutton’s dealership. In the violent aftermath of Blake’s death, two protesters were killed, and a used-car store in Kenosha burned down.

“It’s one of the things that’s going to be in the history books, 15 years from now, where people are going to look back and look at this moment where people are just sick and tired,” Sutton, 33, told Automotive News. “They’re sick and tired of police brutality. They’re sick and tired of exclusion. They’re sick and tired of people who don’t understand how minorities feel or think and don’t ask for our opinions, and don’t have people sitting at the table who are making those decisions to help them understand.”

While Floyd’s death opened eyes and put a greater spotlight on inclusion in the corporate world, this year’s events also have prompted the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers to reaffirm the diversity message that it has been delivering to automakers since the group’s founding 40 years ago.

NAMAD has been asking automakers to put their commitments in writing for years, hoping it would help companies hold themselves accountable.

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Saurabh Shukla

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