Generally, in February, during Black History Month, we look back and honor great Black leaders—we remember their words, we reflect on their impact, we create a space where for one whole month we recognize the achievements of Black Americans to our society and to our world. But quickly thereafter, we go back to business as usual; we forget and often abandon any effort to build on gains achieved by previous generations’ struggles for racial justice and against discrimination. Recently, with current debates sparked throughout our country about race, we are reminded that we in our union continue to need to reflect internally and begin in earnest to examine our industry and our role as a labor union in the global conversation about race and inequity.
The first merger of Black and white locals took place in Los Angeles in 1953. This historic event was the result of a campaign that started in 1950 and was spearheaded by musical giants including Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson, and Red Callender, with the support of an overwhelming majority of musicians and backed by great artists like Josephine Baker and Nat King Cole. The legacy of this merger of segregated locals played out in cities across our country, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, from Chicago to Philadelphia. Each community of musicians in these cities came together to work through their own challenges with the goal of unifying musicians under one banner, with the expressed purpose of raising standards and providing opportunities to all musicians with no regard to their race.
Today, as our nation debates systemic racial injustice, how do we fare as a union some 70 years after our first initial steps to dismantle an unjust and archaic system? From the experience in Los Angeles, unfortunately I can state that total progress remains elusive, and much work remains to create an environment of equality among musicians. While there should be recognition on some level of the progress we have made—like in the area of governance, where we begin to see a greater number of women and minorities take on leadership roles, improving our ability to appropriately represent the collective—greater efforts are needed to improve inclusion in the workplace. According to a League of American Orchestras study, Black musicians represented 1.8% of the nation’s orchestra players in 2014, a figure that had not grown over the previous 12 years. Hispanic musicians represented 2.5% of orchestra players, and Asian/Pacific Islander musicians represented 9%.
In 2015, I became the first person of color elected to the office of president of Local 47, a local that was chartered in 1897. This is an honor that I place in the hands of a progressive membership, to which I am humbled, and yet with this progressive lens in mind, we have not nearly begun to scratch the surface on the issue of diversity in the workplace. Los Angeles is a test case for jurisdictions across our federation, and with the negligible progress here in LA, it would be safe to say we have made little progress throughout our union.
The path toward greater inclusion of minorities in our workplaces requires active efforts to identify and support existing qualified candidates and the creation of labor and community partnerships. By developing partnerships with employers and community organizations, we can begin to address the socio-economic barriers that minority children face in a world where, according to a 2011 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, there was a 5% decline in the rate of arts education for white children between 1982 and 2008, while the decline among African-American children across the same period was 49%, and among Hispanic children, 40%.
Some examples of attempts to address racial inequity in the workplace are worth mentioning. Many American orchestras have embarked on developing fellowships that provide mentorship and training to Black and Latinx musicians—a ray of hope that illustrates the industry’s recognition that a problem does exist. In Los Angeles, we have begun partnerships with K-12 institutions in inner cities to build programs that reveal to young minds careers in the music industry, while supporting other nonprofits that are filling the gap. Many efforts to address the lack of diversity in our industry exist across our nation, with good and mixed results.
I believe there remains great hope and expectation among our ranks that our union will take an active part in the conversation, and that collectively we will lead by example in doing the necessary work toward advancing racial and social equity.