Editor's note: This story is Part 2 in a weeklong series about racism in the construction industry. Click here for the rest of the package. It includes imagery and references to racial slurs that could be disturbing to readers.
The construction industry has seen a scourge of racist incidents on jobsites across North America this year, including nooses hung where people of color could find them and racist graffiti scrawled on walls and in restrooms. Nearly 20 overt and graphic episodes have been reported on jobsites since May.
But construction workers of color say these acts, while recently spotlighted in news coverage, are nothing new in the industry. They are just more examples of the types of racist incidents in construction that they have dealt with for their entire careers. For instance:
Melvin Norman, a 50-year-old Black scaffolding rigger, recalls how as a young man he was forced to ride in the bed of the company truck in triple-digit Louisiana heat so his White co-workers’ lunches could ride in the air-conditioned cab instead. He was relegated to the stairs to haul supplies by hand, instead of being allowed to use the freight elevator. Co-workers told him, “N-----, this is not a place for you. There’s no cotton in this mill.”
“It was horrible,” Norman said. “I wanted to quit every day.”
Leon Araiza, a 47-year-old Native American contractor in Salem, Oregon, felt panic and fear when, as an apprentice, two White journeymen carpenters threatened to throw his “Indian ass off this building” for not moving fast enough.
“They asked me, ‘What do you think this is, Be Good to Your Indian Day?’” Araiza said.
Later, a White contractor told two of Araiza’s Native American employees they should have learned to “scalp better” during the 1800s, while ripping a wig off a mannequin.
And Kadence Jimenez, a 33-year-old journeywoman carpenter in Portland, Oregon, who is Mexican American, said she was shocked when, as an apprentice in 2014, she found a swastika scrawled on a piece of drywall she was tasked with throwing away.
“It was terrifying,” Jimenez said. “It created fear and paranoia in my brain.”
People of color who have encountered racism on jobsites say these kinds of acts make them feel unwelcome, afraid, dehumanized and belittled. Many struggle to go to work every day and question whether they should stay in their jobs. The result is often disengagement at work and a constant fear and distrust of their White co-workers and supervisors.
The examples described in this story, combined with the slew of racist incidents on jobsites this year, highlight the persistent, pervasive nature of hate in the construction industry.
‘Why is this guy here?’
Take the story of a Black plumber in Cincinnati, who said he’ll never forget the epigraph he saw scribbled in the port-a-potty during his first year on the job in 2014: “Here I sit, my butthole getting bigger, giving birth to just another N-----.”
Even though he’s now a master plumber, he said very little has changed when it comes to how he’s treated by some co-workers. They make offhand comments about the “tribal” sound of the Jamaican music he listens to, remarks he usually ignores. But due to the low percentage of Black or African American workers in the construction industry, he’s often the only Black person on a jobsite, a factor that makes him hyperconscious of the color of his skin.
“It’s kind of like how a White guy would feel, walking into a rap concert at a Black bar,” said the plumber, who requested anonymity to speak with Construction Dive for this series due to a fear of being fired for speaking out. “He would feel like, all eyes on him, why is this guy here? That’s kind of how I feel every time I walk on to a jobsite.”
The numbers back him up. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 6% of construction workers are classified as Black or African American, although they comprise 12% of the overall workforce. Meanwhile, 88% of construction workers are White, compared to 78% of all U.S. workers.
The plumber’s strategy to get through his day includes a heads-down attitude, and not engaging with other workers on the jobsite unless he has to. “I usually just put my headphones on, and I don't talk to anybody unless they work for my company,” the plumber said. “I'm just there to work.”
But for safety experts, the plumber’s coping mechanism creates an environment that goes against construction’s mantra of workers having each others’ backs.
“If you have an environment where workers are actively tuning out what's around them, that's absolutely risky in my view,” said Chris Trahan Cain, executive director at Silver Spring, Maryland-based safety consultancy CPWR-The Center for Construction Research and Training. While she said she doesn’t blame the plumber for this jobsite attitude, it’s something any construction firm should work to rectify.
“It’s risky for the employer, who may not know about it, or may not identify it as an issue,” she said. “Providing a safe workplace is the requirement of the employer by law.”
Indeed, according to the Associated General Contractors of America, fostering an environment of exclusion on the jobsite is dangerous.
“Documentation supports that workers who have not been integrated into a workplace culture, or who perceive themselves as ‘outsiders,’ are more likely to have accidents because of the increased psychological and emotional stress of being excluded,” stated a 2018 AGC report on diversity and inclusion.
‘It’s all over the place’
In response to a recent Construction Dive survey, some readers said they haven’t witnessed racism on their jobsites. But 22% said they have been the victim of a racist act on a construction site and 77% who were victimized or witnessed victimization said that nothing was done about it.
For Jimenez, the journeywoman carpenter who found the swastika, it is simply inconceivable that some people have not seen any signs of racism on jobsites.
“They’re walking around with blinders on,” she said of the respondents who answered that way. “Or they don’t see it because there are no minorities on their jobsite and they’re all White. When you look in the port-a-potty, there's the N-word or a swastika or some stupid, racist comment about Latinos. It's all over the place.”
Tolerance of that kind of language and behavior is one of the fundamental aspects of construction that needs to change, she said.
“I feel like if you were in an office setting, you’d get in a lot more trouble for the way people joke. But we’re construction workers. We’re supposed to be thick skinned.”
Thick skinned or not, Jimenez said it’s the common practice of identifying workers by their ethnicity on the jobsite, instead of their position and skills, that rubs many people of color the wrong way. Nowhere is that more apparent than when other workers call Hispanic or Latinx workers “amigo” in lieu of their given names.
“I’ve had to point out to quite a few people that ‘Hey, that’s not cool,’” Jimenez said. “You call this guy here Joe, but you call this other guy amigo? They try to brush it off or make it seem like it’s not what it is, but that’s actually not their name. To me, that is so offensive.”
‘Hispanic people are talked to like they are dogs’
While Hispanic and Latinx people make up 30% of construction workers, compared to 18% in all industries, according to BLS, Jimenez and others said that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are accepted on all jobsites. (Totals for all races do not add up to 100% because people of Hispanic or Latinx ethnicity may be of any race, according to BLS.)
In fact, they’re often tasked with doing menial or undesirable work, Jimenez said, and are sometimes pigeonholed into some of the lowest-paying jobs in the industry. “Mexicans do drywall, and that is just the way it is,” she said.
In addition, Hispanic workers are easy targets because they rarely complain about jobsite injustices or report incidents to their supervisors, she said. “Foremen and bosses, who are majority White men, believe that Hispanic men are good fast workers and that they don't complain,” she said.
Several sources interviewed for this article see this silence as one reason there are more Hispanic people on jobsites than there are Black workers.
“A lot of jobs will hire Hispanics instead of Black people because they know the Hispanics won't report them for the stuff they put them through on projects, and we will,” said Patricia Reed, a journeywoman carpenter, bridge builder and certified welder in Illinois who is Black, and filed a racial and sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit against a former employer, which was settled out of court, according to public records. “I’ve seen Hispanic people get talked to like they were dogs.”
Asian workers have not been immune, either, especially in 2020. “There have been incidents directed towards Chinese workers because of COVID-19, and the president saying it is a Chinese virus,” said Calvin Williams, CEO of Lansing, Illinois-based Construction Contracting Services and Midwest Region vice chair of Associated Builders and Contractors.
‘Out in the field, it’s a totally different thing’
Many people interviewed for this story say that hateful attitudes on the jobsite — and the tolerance of it by foremen and superintendents — lie at the heart of construction’s racism problem.
In a recent lawsuit brought against Mitsubishi Electric US, four Black construction workers allege that co-workers as well as higher-level employees harassed them with racial slurs and images.
The workers say supervisors referred to them as "undesirables," "lazy" and with the N-word, and discriminated against them when it came to opportunities for training, higher pay, overtime and advancement in their careers.
In a statement to Construction Dive, Mitsubishi Chief Operating Officer Michael Corbo said the firm investigated all complaints the employees raised and took prompt action as appropriate.
"Mitsubishi Electric US does not tolerate harassment, discrimination or retaliation. We have strong policies and practices against harassment, discrimination and retaliation and provide regular training on those policies and practices,” Corbo said. “We encourage employees to report issues immediately. We investigate those issues thoroughly."
But for Greg Page, the president of Page Building Group in Waldorf, Maryland, who is Black, what the corporate offices of large contractors say, and what actually happens on site, are distinctly different.
“I’ve worked with companies where their office guys were as cool as can be,” Page said. “But when you get out in the field, it’s a totally different thing.”
Maura Kelly, an associate professor of sociology at Portland State University who has studied apprenticeship completion rates by race and sex, said the disconnect between the corporate office and the jobsite is glaring.
“The kinds of behaviors we see on the jobsite wouldn’t be tolerated in the corporate office of these large construction companies,” Kelly said. “The CEO would not tolerate his direct reports being treated this way.”
But she said there’s a breakdown in communicating that stance to the jobsite.
“Where I see it fall apart is that message doesn’t get all the way down from the leaders of the company through all the multiple layers of the hierarchy,” Kelly said. “So what we often find is that it is the foreman or it is the journeyman who is the problem.”
Brynn Huneke, director of diversity and inclusion at AGC, said that the corporate office-site disconnect plagues construction across all aspects of the business, not just combating racism.
“That's a common theme I hear across the board,” Huneke said. “Whether it’s training and education or just general policy, a lot of initiatives from the corporate environment don’t necessarily translate to the jobsite.”
‘Racism in construction is alive and well’
Hate has even made its presence known in construction’s digital world.
For example, an email titled “Be Proud to be White” that was littered with the N-word and other pejoratives for people of color was forwarded among construction executives in Nevada earlier this year.
And the same day he spoke with Construction Dive for this series, Araiza, the Native American contractor, said he logged onto a virtual site walk on Zoom. He was there to get details for a potential job at Portland Community College, where minority-certified businesses like his were encouraged to submit bids.
Just 16 minutes into the presentation, someone with the screen name “Howard Stones” posted a hateful screed in the chat dialogue window that read, “Lynch all N-----s and Jews.”
According to PCC, where a noose was found on another jobsite earlier this year, about 40 participants were in the call, and the credentials and password for the meeting were advertised in its Request for Proposals. A PCC representative said college officials had not ascertained who Howard Stones was, but said the college would change its RFP policies going forward.
“It got real quiet,” a notably shaken Araiza said minutes later. “Racism in construction is alive and well.”