Editor's note: This story is Part 5 in a weeklong series about racism in the construction industry. Click here for the rest of the package.
Construction has a racism problem.
So far in 2020, nearly 20 reported incidents of flagrant racism took place on construction jobsites throughout North America, from nooses hung where workers of color would find them, to racist screeds of graffiti spewing hate.
But as this series has shown, these latest episodes are nothing new in construction, where racism has been tolerated on jobsites for decades. It also runs in a subtle undercurrent of systemic discrimination and an ingrained hierarchy that reinforces the status quo in a $1.3 trillion industry.
Many in construction say these hateful acts are happening now as a backlash to the global protests spurred by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this year at the hands of police. In addition, racists and hate mongers have been emboldened by the current divisive political climate within the U.S. and a president who tacitly condones White supremacist ideals, people interviewed for this series said.
“Racist entities around the country have responded to things the current administration says about race,” said Calvin Williams, CEO of Lansing, Illinois-based Construction Contracting Services and Midwest Region vice chair of Associated Builders and Contractors, a sentiment that was shared by several sources for this series. “I think that has just emboldened people in the construction industry to express themselves in these ways.”
In the wake of these incidents, construction firms are stepping up their efforts to confront the issue in an industry that is overwhelmingly White. For some people of color, though, no amount of talk, or action, will ever solve construction’s racism problem.
“Racism is bound in the heart of a person,” said Delbert Jordan, president of Richmond Heights, Ohio-based road builder Pro Construction, who is Black. “You ain't gonna get rid of that. There's no way.”
Others are more optimistic.
“I don’t have all the answers, but I guarantee that if enough people put their heads together, this problem can be solved,” Williams said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 88% of construction workers are White, compared to 78% in the overall workforce. By contrast, just 6% of construction workers are Black or African American, while they represent 12% of the workforce across all industries.
Given those numbers, the solutions to construction’s racism problem must encompass not only corporate decisionmakers but middle managers, superintendents, laborers, suppliers and subs, sources interviewed for this story say. Here are some of their ideas:
Acknowledge racism exists in construction
Deryl McKissack, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based ENR Top 50 construction management for fee firm McKissack & McKissack, who issued a seven-step plan to combat systemic racism in construction this summer, said the first step to stopping discrimination in the industry is simply acknowledging it exists, a fact that some respondents to a recent Construction Dive poll denied.
“First we have to admit that we have a problem,” said McKissack, who is Black. “Just like an alcoholic has to admit they drink too much before they can start working on it. Because if you deny it, you don’t have to do anything about it.”
Drew Aversa, a San Francisco Bay Area-based business consultant and former director of business development at the San Ramon, California-based United Contractors trade association, said construction leaders need to confront this jobsite elephant.
“We have to tackle, head on, the uncomfortable, controversial conversations that we're told not to talk about, such as racism,” Aversa said. “We have to get real and honest with ourselves.”
Understand that you don’t understand
After acknowledging that racism exists in construction, White workers and leaders need to recognize they can likely never truly understand what it’s like to be a person of color in the industry.
“You can talk about racism all you want, but until you’ve experienced it, you don’t understand."
“For a lot of Black people, it’s like coming back from war,” said Nate McCoy, an African American and executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors. “We have post-traumatic stress from racism.”
Leon Araiza, a Native American contractor in Salem, Oregon, who faced the threat of being thrown off a roof by two White journeymen during his apprenticeship, said there’s a visceral impact of racism that has to be felt to be comprehended.
“You can talk about racism all you want, but until you’ve experienced it, you don’t understand,” said Araiza. “Not until you have somebody right there, looking you in the face, and telling you you’re lucky they don’t throw your Indian ass off the building.”
Melvin Norman, a Black scaffolding rigger who was forced to ride in the bed of a truck to make room for his White coworkers’ lunches in the air-conditioned cab, said White workers should imagine the rage they would experience if someone threatened their spouse or child; that’s how racism has impacted him.
“I’d try to have them see things from a different perspective,” said Norman. “How would you feel?”
Focus on the jobsite
Construction’s uncomfortable conversations must start by focusing on racism where it runs rampant: on the jobsite. Sources who spoke to Construction Dive for this series say that while systemic racism and unconscious bias exist at all levels of the industry, racism is clearest to see — and most widely tolerated — where boots are on the ground.
“Corporate has one attitude toward diversity and inclusion, but oftentimes that attitude and that culture is not transferred to the field,” said Greg Page, CEO of Waldorf, Maryland-based Page Building Group, who is Black. “So we'd have one relationship with the senior project manager going through preconstruction and going over the numbers. But then when it's time to go, and we get out in the field, it’s a very different culture.”
Indeed, for McKissack, who has spent nearly 40 years in the industry, it’s the perspective and attitude of whoever fills the foreman or supervisor position on the jobsite that sets the tone for everything else. Nevertheless, she sees positive signs.
“The next generation of people coming into the industry are really working to be inclusive, and they're succeeding in many areas,” McKissack said. “It's when you run into that Baby Boomer superintendent that you have to be prepared to hear crazy things coming out of their mouth. Not all of them, but some.”
Fire racist foremen and superintendents
The solution to addressing the disconnect between the corporate office and the jobsite needs to go beyond sensitivity training, according to these sources. There needs to be accountability for individuals who engage in racist activity, including a zero-tolerance policy.
“It's great to talk about having more equity training and protocols in place, and certainly those are positive,” said McCoy. “But we need to make an example of people who do things like put a noose on a jobsite. We need to hold them accountable, either by putting them in prison or no longer welcoming them in the construction industry.”
Kelley Hodge, a labor and employment attorney at Philadelphia-based Fox Rothschild and a former prosecutor, said it’s the lack of accountability in the construction industry to date that has likely contributed to this ongoing behavior.
“Generally speaking, people do things they shouldn't be doing when they feel like they won't get caught or face any consequences,” said Hodge. “People who are espousing this kind of hate are doing it because there’s no accountability for them doing so.”
Turner Construction posted a video on YouTube that makes clear the company will prosecute the perpetrators of any hate crimes committed on its jobsites, while breaking contracts with those who don’t comply with its anti-discrimination policies.
Pat Daniels, executive director of Constructing Hope, a Portland, Oregon-based organization that teaches previously incarcerated individuals trade skills, said it’s about denying racists the construction jobs her students struggle so hard to get.
“It's got to start from the top down,” said Daniels. “If it’s the foreman who’s doing it, or giving everyone else the checkered flag that this type of behavior is OK, he needs to be terminated. There has to be action, not just talk.”
Nevertheless, zero-tolerance policies are not always successful, due to another challenge in construction: its chronic labor shortage, according to Maura Kelly, an associate professor at Portland State University in Oregon who has studied racism in construction.
“If your best foreman makes a racist comment, he's not going to get fired,” Kelly said. “The zero-tolerance policies are not enforceable.”
Have a system for reporting and tracking incidents
For many, the idea of keeping track of racism on jobsites also seems like a logical step. After all, the industry has been successful at improving safety outcomes by initiating similar stances toward hazardous conditions on site.
“Incidents of racism or harassment could be reported as easily as a safety violation,” said Michael Meager, president at Chicago-based James McHugh Construction, who is White. “Our site safety managers conduct safety inspections to ensure compliance with OSHA. We could conduct audits to make sure the work environment is free from racism, too.”
“Some private corporations actually use your safety rating as to whether you can work with them. Maybe there ought to be a racism rating, too.”
McKissack & McKissack
Brynn Huneke, director, diversity & inclusion at the Associated General Contractors of America trade group, said some member firms are setting up anonymous tip lines to let workers call in racist actions. Both Turner Construction, the second largest contractor in the country, and Rosendin Electric, one of the nation’s largest subcontractors, have done so.
“They're giving employees the ability to raise those concerns so the company can do an investigation,” Huneke said.
Williams, the ABC vice chair, proposed tracking racism like any other KPI.
“You create a reporting mechanism to track these incidents,” he said. “Say you have 10 incidents of verbal assaults with racial epithets the first year. Then you let two guys go, and you only have four the next. When you get to where you haven’t had any for two years, you’re doing something right.”
McKissack said that approach could be overlaid onto business processes that are already in the industry.
“Some private corporations actually use your safety rating as to whether you can work with them,” McKissack said. “Maybe there ought to be a racism rating, too.”
Provide the right training
Kelly recommends the “bystander intervention approach.”
“Research has shown if you try to tell people to stop harassing people, that doesn't really work,” Kelly said. “But if you train everybody on the jobsite about how they can intervene when they see something they disagree with, that’s more likely to create change.”
She also advocates bite-sized training sessions incorporated into daily workflows.
“You don’t have to go away to a three-day training,” Kelly said. “You can deliver it in smaller pieces, either in a one-hour setting, or even just 10 minutes during the toolbox talk where it’s a topic of conversation.”
AGC recently introduced sample anti-racism toolbox talks for contractors to use, and Turner’s YouTube video advocates both zero tolerance and a bystander intervention approach.
Respondents to a recent Construction Dive poll indicated that training — among other tactics — is an important step toward quelling racist actions and attitudes on site.
Go beyond the jobsite
Many sources interviewed for this series said any solution to construction’s racism problem must extend beyond construction.
“You have to go further than just on the jobsite, because you can't stop being what you are from 9 to 5,” said Araiza. “It has to be a culture change.”
McKissack frames the issue through a simple question for her White colleagues: “Have you ever had a Black person over to dinner?”
“A lot of White people don’t have Black friends,” McKissack said. “That’s just the way it is, and that gets missed. I think a lot of people would not realize there’s some kind of bias going on there.”
For Kadence Jimenez, a 33-year-old Mexican American journeywoman carpenter who found a swastika on a piece of drywall at work, the solution to racism on the jobsite is simple, even if it’s harder to realize: Just treat her like anyone else.
“I'm more than just my culture or what I appear to be,” she said. “Ask me to do things based on my skill set, not my cultural status or the color of my skin.”