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The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 76: Terry Esper Explains His Experience With Racism in Academia and How To Be an Anti-racist

June 17, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Terry Esper is an Associate Professor of Logistics in the Department of Marketing and Logistics at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University. Dr. Esper was previously the Oren Harris Endowed Chair of Logistics and associate professor of supply chain management at the Sam M. Walton College of Business. During his time at the University of Arkansas, Terry was the executive director of the Walton College’s supply chain management research center. He has also taught supply chain management at the University of Tennesee. His research in the area of last-mile logistics has brought to light the racial injustices experienced by Black delivery drivers. As a Black man in supply chain management, Terry has a unique experience and sheds light on what can be done about the racial injustices in America.

Episode Transcript

00:08 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, dean of the Sam M Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education in your life today.

00:29 Matt Waller: I have with me today, Dr. Terry Esper, who is an Associate Professor of logistics in the Department of Marketing and Logistics at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University. Terry was previously the Oren Harris Endowed Chair of Logistics and Associate Professor of Supply Chain Management here at the University of Arkansas. He was Executive Director of the Walton College Supply Chain Management Research Center. And he also, at one point, was a supply chain management professor at the University of Tennessee. He has been an extremely prolific researcher, and his research has looked at the intersection in many cases of logistics in marketing. He's also an editor on the top two journals in supply chain management, the Journal of Business Logistics and the Journal of Supply Chain Management.

01:25 Matt Waller: He does executive education for many companies, he's done it for Walmart, Procter and Gamble, JB Hunt, Tyson, Unilever, Kellogg, Nationwide Insurance, Apple, Lowes, US Department of Defense and many others. And the other thing is, Terry got his master's and PhD at the University of Arkansas. And so I have known Terry for quite a long time. Terry, thank you for joining me today.

01:56 Terry Esper: Thank you. Thank you, Matt. It's so good to chat with you today.

02:00 Matt Waller: Remind me, what year did you finish your PhD and your MBA from here?

02:04 Terry Esper: Yeah, I was in the MBA class of '98 and finished my PhD in 2003. Yeah, so roughly the late '90s to early 2000s, those were all of my years of studying in the Walton College.

02:20 Matt Waller: Of course, we're really proud of all you've accomplished.

02:23 Terry Esper: Oh wow, thank you. Thank you.

02:24 Matt Waller: And you're at a tremendous program right now at The Ohio State University.

02:30 Terry Esper: Thank you.

02:30 Matt Waller: And your research continues to come out, and you also have started doing a few opinion pieces as well, and I wanted to get into that because you're an African-American professor at a university that's predominantly white. So I do wanna get into some... What you've noticed about that, and of course, you were a student at the University of Arkansas, which is a predominantly white university. It has a varied background in history that's relevant to that. And of course, you were a professor here as well later, but I know you recently used your expertise and your knowledge and said, "Well, how is racism affecting logistics and supply chain management?" And you wrote a piece on that, would you mind speaking to that a little bit?

03:22 Terry Esper: Sure, thanks so much for that, Matt, and just some of that background. I mean, you're right, I think the reality for those of us who study supply chain logistics and really any discipline, to be honest with you, is that if you are a person of color, if you're African-American, more than likely, if you desire to be at some of the top programs in your area, you're gonna be in predominantly white institutions. And so that's kind of the reality of it. That's the way the cookie crumbles, as we say. So that has been my life. That has been my experience. And so that reality has been something that has not necessarily been a part of my research. My research has never really been on issues of race and racial differences and even individual differences in that regard, but I have started to pivot into that space over the last several years, as I've started to notice that these are just issues that I think we have to just face and deal with, particularly because they have very serious business and operations implications, but also that I think we're dealing with a consumer in today's marketplace that just generally cares more about these issues.

04:31 Terry Esper: And these conversations are becoming much more salient to persons' purchasing behaviors. So one of my major areas of research and one of the areas that really gets me most excited is in last mile logistics, so handling the distribution of product to the homes of modern consumers. One of my very first publications right when I was a doctoral student at the U of A was on the last mile of logistics and really making the case that the last mile of logistics was important, and we were one of the first research groups to establish that consumers cared about the last mile of logistics, that there was a satisfaction contribution of logistics. Because again, it's just delivery was the mindset.

05:18 Matt Waller: What year did that article come out in Journal of Business Logistics?

05:23 Terry Esper: Yeah, it came out in 2003, very early, and that was on the heels of my work experience working for a major retail operation where we had established a dot com, and so when I was working in industry, we had a lot of debate about logistics, do people care, do folks care about who's delivering their package. We debated about whether or not people would even care to track their packages, and there was a lot of debate about that. Now, that's just a standard of service. But at that time we were standing up new dot com operations, and there really was no blueprint. And so on the heels of that work experience, I did the research that established that transportation services and logistics services were important, and that compared to everything else that was driving the satisfaction of consumers, we were able to show that the logistics element of that transaction was also important. And we saw that when consumers were aware of the companies that they would be engaging with for those deliveries of those packages, that that added another level of satisfaction with the transaction.

06:28 Terry Esper: And so that was kind of the beginning of this whole story that logistics matters to consumers and that the delivery experience is a part of the online retail experience that matters to consumers. Now you fast forward to 2020, and I've been thinking a lot about so many aspects of that delivery experience. But in a paper a few years ago, we pivoted and started to focus on the role that the delivery driver plays in contributing to that satisfaction. And it became very clear to me through this research that we engaged in that black drivers were experiencing some differences when they were delivering, that there were instances that had started to emerge where black drivers were treated differently, where Black drivers were experiencing harassment, confrontations, and there was really no other reason that we could point to other than the fact that they were black.

07:29 Terry Esper: And so that stayed with me, and a few years later, 2020, we're dealing with the very heated environment in which we now live, and we started to see over the last couple of weeks, more and more stories coming out of black delivery drivers being harassed and being confronted in communities. The story of a driver that was basically held up by members of a community because they felt that he was suspicious and they had questions as to what are you doing in our neighborhood. And the poor driver with his hands on the wheel saying, I'm not gonna let go of the wheel 'cause I don't want these guys to think that I'm reaching for some type of firearm. I don't want this to escalate, and it was not until there was another driver that could come and verify that he was who he said he was, that he was able or allowed, if you will, to move on.

08:17 Terry Esper: Several examples have come to the forefront. A delivery driver making a food delivery but was met with a firearm by someone who said that, "I'm nervous and I don't know who you are, and I'm gonna hold you here until law enforcement shows up to ensure that you really are who you say you are." These issues are happening, and I noticed that they were happening more frequently, especially during COVID-19, where we see more people ordering online, but also when we layer this with the George Floyd incident, the reality is that these issues are emerging more and more. So I wrote that opinion piece where I wanted to bring attention to this issue.

08:54 Terry Esper: And even since the opinion piece, there's been another incident that has emerged where a driver was confronted, this time by law enforcement because he parked on the wrong side of the street in order to be closer to the home he was delivering to because the package that he was delivering was heavy. And in the process of this confrontation with police, he was thrown to the ground, backup police were called, and they say that close to 20 police officers arrived on the scene all because a small-framed delivery driver questioned why he was being asked to show ID.

09:28 Terry Esper: And so Matt, all of this coming together has opened up a new avenue for me to really think not only about the research that I've done in the past, but how we can leverage the insights from that research in order to effect some change and to bring some visibility to an area that has in many ways been lurking for several years, but just the stories have never risen to a point of conversation.

09:51 Matt Waller: Have you... I mean, in your experience as a professor, what has been your experience with racism as a professor?

10:01 Terry Esper: Oh man. Well, so there's so many things I could point to. I think the very first time that I felt it was right in my face was when I walked into a classroom and an older gentleman who was a non-traditional student, white male, stood up and walked out. Now again, who knows why he decided to drop the class, but I couldn't help but to wonder... And this was in East Tennessee, I was at University of Tennessee at the time. I think a lot of the conversations that we have within academia, in terms of how racism oftentimes shows up, we're not in the days and ages where folks are intentionally calling you certain names and being very overt, but they're small things. I can't tell you the number of times that with all of these grays in my beard, and with all of the degrees on my wall, and with all of the experiences that I'm sharing with students, that they continued to call me Mr. Esper. That seems like a small thing, but it's one of those indicators that somehow or another, there could potentially be a bias underneath that would assume that maybe I have not yet earned my PhD.

11:09 Terry Esper: There have been instances where I've had to be particularly just aware of my surroundings. I had a student once that came into my office and he said, "Oh, you know, I don't want to miss class. Man, if I look at those guns, I'm not gonna miss any days in your class." And I'm like, "I don't know why you would say that to me." That concerned me because I felt as if he was conveying this notion that my presence was a threat, and I know he kinda meant it jokingly, but it raised a concern for me, and in some cases, to be honest with you, and here's a reality from a race relations perspective, I don't think I could even afford to have that kind of persona. I think that I've had that conversation with many of my white colleagues who would say things like, "I want to be tough, and I want my students to see me as tough." I've never bought into that. I don't see why that's such an enjoyment factor for people.

12:00 Terry Esper: But I don't get the luxury of saying that because I don't want people to fear me because I know that there will be people who fear me the moment I walk into the room simply because of their biases and the things that might have been instilled in them early on in life. So I know I can't think of any instances where, Matt, I could say I have experienced just straight out overt racism, it's been smaller things behind the scenes. Even when I was a doctoral student at the U of A, and even a graduate student, and my performance in classes was interpreted to mean that I must have been cheating, for example. In the old, what we call CISQ department, Tom Jones used to teach a operations and quantitative analysis course, and it was known as the class that everybody was afraid of, and I walked in there and just aced every exam.

12:53 Terry Esper: And the rumour was like, "He must be cheating." And well, that was a concern of mine because I'm like, "Why must I be cheating?" I just felt that I wasn't given the benefit of the doubt, but I will say that I am very aware of the ways in which I can be perceived by others, and I have to wear that with me every day. I think about it when students want to meet with me. I had a young lady some years ago when I was on faculty there at Walton who wanted to meet with me with me about her grade. And she was very upset about the outcome of the class, and she was in tears because of that. And I literally said, "Okay, let's step out." Because I don't want someone, for example, to overhear a young woman in my office in tears crying about an issue, and I not have other eyes on this situation. That's something that I just have to be particularly careful about, it's unfortunate, but those are just some biases that I have to just kind of negate on my own and be cognizant of.

13:53 Matt Waller: Terry, what advice would you have to students that have a professor of color, what advice would you give to them to help them be anti-racist?

14:07 Terry Esper: Yeah, I'm so thankful that you use that term anti-racist, because I think that has been the thing that I see is so different with the dialogue and the discussions that we're having today. And what I see, what is so interesting to me is that these are a lot of young people that are standing up even to their parents and their grandparents, and they're saying, "I just believe that it's time for me to stand up against what might have been instilled into me as a child." I would say that there's one piece of advice, which is that it's okay for you to define for yourself what is going to be your own truth and your own reality, that there might have been biases and perceptions and stories and jokes that you were privy to and surrounded by as a child, but when you get to the university environment, it's the time where you can express yourself and stand in your own reality.

14:58 Terry Esper: So I would say the first point of advice is that it's okay to question the things that have been instilled in you, and that if there are some biases that you have against your professors that might be of different backgrounds and ethnicities, it's okay to accept the fact that maybe, just maybe what you might have heard from a parent, an uncle, or even friends, maybe it's wrong and it's okay to decide that you're gonna stand on the right side of what was wrong. What I know for sure is that we don't get access to stand in front of these classrooms if we are not tried and true and know what the heck we're talking about. These PhDs are not given out for free, even when it comes to how some of these biases may, for example, lead students to perhaps discredit the capabilities and the experiences of certain faculty members, the reality is that professors of all walks of life are in those classrooms because they have the background, the credentials and the experiences to be able to do so.

15:56 Terry Esper: So I think that that's one, again, one of those other underlying biases sometimes that might seep in. There are a number of things, but I would just say be open to the experiences. The thing that I have found that has been so valuable about being African-American as a professor is that I find that they're able to learn something uniquely different about other experiences, and so I would say to the student, listen and try not to discount some of these experiences that persons that might be teaching you that might have different backgrounds, ethnicities, even genders, and then ponder how their reality can help you understand your reality better.

16:35 Matt Waller: How about for faculty and/or staff? What advice would you give to them?

16:40 Terry Esper: Yeah, well, I think it is what it is. Just being anti-racist. I think that's why I love this conversation and this phrase, because I think for a long time we have gotten so used to saying, "Well, that's not me, I'm not like that." But yet, still not willing to stand up for what's right when we know that there has been some injustice or some unfair treatment. So what I like about the anti-racism dialogue is that it goes beyond that. And so I would say that the advice would be, again, get to a point of not only being comfortable with your beliefs, be being bold enough to stand up for justice and for what's right. And then being open to hearing the realities of other people.

17:29 Terry Esper: It has been interesting to me the number of friends that have reached out to me and said things like, "I get it now." And I'm like, "We've been telling you this for a long time. Did you not hear me the four, five and six other times that we've expressed this?" I think now, and I think what was so impactful about the horrific killing of George Floyd is that folks were able to see these kinds of injustices are not a figment of our imagination. We are not in the space of hyperbole where we're kind of just amplifying things for the sake of having a narrative, that these are some realities that folks have experienced, and we were telling the truth when we said it before. So I think that will be another one of those takeaways, which would be to listen and not try to discount or counter the realities of what others are experiencing.

18:19 Matt Waller: So based on your most recent article about African-American drivers who really are facing horrible situations, what advice would you give to white people who are dealing with African-American drivers?

18:37 Terry Esper: Yeah, it's an area that I've wanted to migrate that conversation to. I'm working on a follow-up piece to the one article that I wrote. The one article, it expressed my concern and brought attention to several examples that have emerged over the last couple of weeks, but there are some real implications here in terms of service, in terms of performance, so there are a lot of layers to the onion, if you will. So let's start with the recipient, the delivery recipient. I think that that's an internal conversation that folks need to have, which is maybe I need to think about why it is that I start to see my heart palpitate when I see a random black guy arriving, walking up to my door. And several of these examples that we have seen in the news, some of them have been package recipients that have come out and chased down and asked drivers, "What are you doing here?"

19:33 Terry Esper: So I do think that there's that factor, which is an internal conversation. Secondly, I think that there's a neighborhood conversation to be talked about here, because more often than not, the persons that are accosting and confronting drivers are not the recipients of packages, it's neighbors. So the one UPS driver, for example, in a full UPS uniform with a full UPS truck that was approached by a white woman in the neighborhood and said, "Who are you? You look suspicious. What are you doing here?" She was not expecting a package, she was a passerby that felt that this driver looked suspicious. Or the situation where a FedEx driver was chased down by a neighbor because he felt the driver was driving too fast and went on to use very specific language of a racial tone toward this driver. And that incident ended very bad, to be honest with you, that story.

20:34 Terry Esper: So I think that there's a neighborhood conversation to also be had here, which is, "Who are the folks that I live around, and what are the conversations and the biases and the opinions of my neighbors?" Because in the situation where the driver was held up by the neighbors who were asking, "What are you doing here?" And they're not gonna let you leave until you answer these questions, it was the delivery recipient that had to arrive on the scene and say, "Hey, no, no, no, this was the delivery driver that just delivered something to my home, let him go." Okay, so I think there's that conversation. Now, I think another part of this is what the true impact of it is. Now, I'm putting on my business hat here, right, Matt? So you think about this, these drivers are being held up because of the biases of people that are either receiving these packages or that live in these neighborhoods.

21:25 Terry Esper: What that means is that a driver that is already on a very, very stressful, packed route to get packages to homes by certain times because of certain delivery commitments, those drivers are held up, and so now that has a ripple effect on the delivery service quality that the subsequent customers on this driver's route is going to receive. Now we have heightened likelihood of late deliveries. And as we know, 'cause I said it earlier on when we were talking, the delivery component of online retail has become so vital that a late delivery can result in a company losing a customer forever. There is a trickle-down effect of these situations. There's also something to be said about the stress that this causes drivers, so there's already the stress of being a driver, but then there's the additional stress of encountering some degree of bias or racism along your route, if they don't speak on it, and it's not recorded.

22:21 Terry Esper: What I know from talking to other drivers is that it's happened a ton of times before, these were the times when they were daring enough to pull out their cell phones. So experiencing that has a really negative impact on the stress, and now we're talking about the health and the well-being of your driver force. Now you have a critical mass of your labor force that is carrying extra levels of stress associated with the job. So there's a lot of things that I think are there. And the last one I'll give you in terms of the implications of this. The number of times that someone has had to intervene from the company, so the UPS example that I talked about where the lady said, "You look suspicious." It took a white UPS employee to arrive on the scene to confirm that that young man was a UPS driver.

23:06 Terry Esper: So now you're talking talking about additional labor that needs to intervene in order to confirm that these drivers are who they say they are, or intervene to finish up a route. That's cost. So I think there's a lot of conversations to be had here about how this impacts not only society, but also there are some business implications here, some performance implications, some cost implications, and that's what we're setting out to do, try to quantify that, to provide companies with some ideas on how to curtail those costs.

23:37 Terry Esper: Matt, as I started to dig into these stories and starting to unfold these conversations, I stumbled upon a story of a young man in the news here in Columbus, Ohio, actually, a couple of years ago, where a young boy, 12, I believe, delivering papers with his mom, and he had unfortunately delivered newspapers to the wrong address, I think he was just starting his paper route, and he had to go back to the houses where he delivered the wrong newspapers and try to recollect them. And before you know it, the police arrive on the scene from a report that there was a young black boy and that his behavior was suspicious in this neighborhood.

24:15 Terry Esper: Now, I've reached out to the mom and I will soon speak with her just to see how this young man is doing, but my whole delivery experience started as a paper boy, and so I know the realities of walking up to homes, that was probably the most gut-wrenching story of all of them to me, because this young man is only 12, and so that's something that he will inevitably remember for the rest of his life, probably, that he was approached by police because of what he was doing, and he was just trying to learn the importance of work and work ethic. So it's been interesting to see this all unfold, but I'm excited about the visibility that we have experienced with this conversation thus far. I have several things lined up based on that one thought piece, I'm humbled by it, to be honest with you, 'cause I just sat down and started to write, and before I know it, I'm getting invited to talk with you about these things, so I'm really, really excited and humbled by it, to be honest.

25:15 Matt Waller: Well, like I said at the beginning, we are so proud of what you've accomplished. Terry, thank you so much for being willing to talk about this topic with me. I think our listeners will definitely appreciate it. And of course I just enjoyed spending time with you again. Good to see you.

25:35 Terry Esper: Good to see you, Matt. I'm so happy to be a part of this, and I'm humbled by the ability to talk about what is a... It's a heavy conversation, but I think we're at a time in this country where we have to operate in love, operate in good intentions, but still have tough conversations.

25:57 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching BeEpic podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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