American Sailor
Racing’s fan base is, in many places, racially and ethnically mixed. Its board rooms, not so much.

This is Part 2 of two. Go here to read Part 1, In Racing, “Where is the conversation about race?”

“We believe in equality and stand together with our community to end systemic racism.”

These words were tweeted by the accounts of The Stronach Group’s racing properties on June 3, TSG being one of the few U.S. Thoroughbred racing entities to acknowledge the nationwide protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

Standing against systemic racism would seem to be a pretty safe position to take, yet the statement is, in the context of the industry, fairly extraordinary. It acknowledged that racism exists. Radical, right? (That’s a joke.)

But what does it mean to end systemic racism? Where does one start, especially in an industry that is woefully behind most others in recognizing the need for inclusivity?

“Companies have to be clear about their ‘why,’” said Joyell Arvella, founder and CEO of Harp + Sword, a Baltimore-based organization that uses “restorative justice to advance racial and gender equity in womxn’s health.”

She continued, “What is the narrative behind wanting to do this work? What does it even mean? Do you want to disrupt white supremacy? Do you want more representation of black and brown folks on your roster? Is it about optics?”

Arvella, who holds a degree in Black Studies and a J.D., has worked with the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government and the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon, among many other national and international organizations. She spent part of her childhood on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and remembers watching people ride horses at a nearby farm.

“I never saw people like me riding horses, so I didn’t think I could, until I started going over there,” she said.

She observed that the history of Black people in horse racing has been largely lost or concealed, as has been the role that white people played in that erasure.

“Racing organizations can do the research of finding out how the industry got to where it is now,” she said.

Black jockeys dominated the sport in the latter half of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th century; entrusted with the care of their former enslavers’ horses, formerly enslaved people and their descendants were among the premier horsemen in the country, and horses ridden by Black jockeys won 15 of the first 28 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

Joyell Arvella
Joyell Arvella. Photo courtesy of Joyell Arvella.

In the face of racial hostility in the South, some of those jockeys, including Jimmy Winkfield, moved north, only to find that the predominantly Irish jockeys were willing to take extraordinary measures to keep Black jockeys out of the sport.

In his biography of Winkfield, Black Maestro, Joe Drape wrote, “An Anti-Colored Union was in place, with the goal of running the black riders off the racetrack. It had begun earlier in the year at the Queens County track when the white jockeys…put the word out that if owners wanted to take home first-place purses, they’d best not ride the colored jockeys…Sometimes [the white jockeys] pocketed, or surrounded, a black jockey until they could ride him into and over the rail. Their whips found the thighs, hands, and face of the colored boy next to them more often than the horse they were riding. Every day a black rider ended up in the dirt; and every day racing officials looked the other way.”

Some white trainers refused to ride Black jockeys, maintaining that it was too dangerous. 

Arvella also talked about the backstretch, noting that that is where the majority of people of color in the industry work: in positions devoid of decision-making power and equity.

“What positions,” she asked, “will allow people of color to thrive?” 

One long-time industry professional, an African-American, would speak only on condition of anonymity, concerned that their employer wouldn’t support their comments. In fact, the paucity of Black people in racing made this person fearful that even using a personal pronoun would make them identifiable and that they might face employment consequences as a result.

This person would like to see a commitment to reach out to the Black and Latinx workers in the sport and to create a path to advancement for backstretch workers. And like Arvella, this person would like to see programs designed to inform customers about the sport’s history and the role that Black people played in it.

In the statement denouncing systemic racism, the National Thoroughbred Racing Association announced a collaboration with Legacy Equine Academy, which encourages primarily students of color to attend college and pursue degrees in equine-related studies.

“The NTRA will help fund scholarships for students in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Equine Programs with the intent of fostering a more inclusive Thoroughbred racing industry for generations to come,” said the release.

“As we began talking about making a statement,” said NTRA president and CEO Alex Waldrop, “we realized that it might ring hollow for an organization like us to call for change. We had to demonstrate that we do in fact support diversity and inclusivity in the industry.”

The NTRA board includes no people of color; its staff of 16 comprises 14 white people.

In a recent interview, Waldrop said that the NTRA supports the Black Lives Matter movement and that the scholarship is just the beginning of the organization’s commitment to equity.

“We have to do more,” he said. “We don’t have a specific plan, and we don’t have he ability to issue policy to our members because they’re independent. All we can do is lead with our words and our actions, and be mindful as we go about hiring and putting people in positions of power.” 

What will that leadership look like? Harp + Sword’s Avella has some suggestions for moving forward and some questions to consider.

“Are you doing this work because it’s a trend or because you care about human life and the representation of Black and brown people, especially within horse racing?” she asked. “Or do you just want diversity?”

When she works with clients, she asks if they are ready to make significant change: to create new policies and practices, to remove people from positions, to work in different neighborhoods.

“I’d rather that people be clear that they’re not ready to do this and not do something, than to say that they are ready and end up stalling or halting change,” she said. “That’s more harmful. You’re taking time from the folks who care about these issues and who want equity to move forward, and who know that you’re not going to change anything.” 

She suggests that companies do a racial and equity audit.

“Ask yourself, ‘Who’s on our roster? Who’s in power? Who’s been in power?’ ‘How have we gotten to where we are as this specific business?’” she said. “That can include reading and researching and uncovering where resistance comes from. People can be resistant to change because they’re ignorant of the ways in which they’ve benefitted at the expense of others. This isn’t only about listening to people of color who have been marginalized; you have to examine the culture and people who have benefitted from these systems.”

Depending on where the organization is in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, leaders might need to offer training or learning series, first for executives, board members, and leadership, then for the staff.

“Never do the staff and the executives together at the start, especially if the leadership is all white,” she said. “People need to be able to talk without fear of retaliation.” 

After that, she recommended, various groups within the organization can come together to begin long-term work.

“This takes time,” she said. “It can’t be done within six months. How far is the organization willing to go? How much time and money and resources are you ready to put into it?”

And that, says handicapper and blogger Barry Spears, is precisely what he’s worried about.

“As a black person, I’ve seen this before,” he said. “I’ve seen situations similar to this with no follow-through. Everybody’s good and together now…but what about a month from now?”