It has been a difficult problem for the construction industry: hangman’s nooses, a symbol of hate synonymous with the history of Black lynchings in the U.S., appearing on jobsites. Their occurrence has become so common that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a data category that tracks complaints about them.
Perhaps nowhere did the issue gain more attention than on an Amazon fulfillment center jobsite in 2021, when workers discovered as many as eight nooses throughout the project over a number of weeks.
Now, those workers have sued Amazon, along with Fairfield, New Jersey-based general contractor RC Andersen and Holliston, Massachusetts-based Wayne J. Griffin Electric, saying the companies didn’t do enough to stop nooses from appearing.
In response, an Amazon spokesperson told Construction Dive, “Hate, racism, and discrimination have no place in our society and are not tolerated at any site associated with Amazon, whether under construction or fully operational. Due to the active legal proceedings, we do not have further comment at this time.” RC Andersen and Griffin didn’t immediate respond to requests for comment.
CEOs weigh in
While the suit is still in litigation, two prominent industry CEOs told Construction Dive that owners and contractors should ultimately be held responsible for stopping hate symbols from appearing on jobsites.
“We’re all responsible,” said Peter Davoren, CEO of New York-based Turner Construction, the largest contractor in the country based on revenue. “An owner delegates the site to the construction manager. It's still the owner's site, but it's a kind of unconditional trust.”
Davoren has been outspoken on the issue of bias-motivated events on jobsites and personally visits projects when one occurs. His company also stops work at sites when hateful graffiti or nooses show up to discuss the importance of fostering an inclusive environment on jobs.
The company recently stopped a job in San Diego after biased graffiti showed up in a bathroom three times in one week.
“We’re training the 700 people that are on the job,” Davoren said. “The owners are in full support of us, but if we’re delayed, we pick up the cost. We’ve done that before.”
Deryl McKissack, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based construction management firm McKissack & McKissack, said if contractors and owners know about biased-motivated events taking place on jobsites and don’t take action to stop them, they should be held accountable.
“It's when you're put on notice and you do nothing that you become liable, or you become party to what's taking place,” said McKissack.
In their suit, the workers pointed to the appearance of a noose on another Amazon jobsite where the same contractors worked in 2017, and argued the occurrence should have served notice to the firms that they needed to do more in the future.
The CEOs spoke to Construction Dive in the lead up to Construction Inclusion Week, which takes place from Oct. 16 through 20 and aims at eliminating hate on jobsites.
A personal legacy
For McKissack, whose great-great-grandfather started a construction company after he was freed from slavery after the Civil War, the appearance of nooses on jobsites holds particular significance.
“It’s very painful,” she said.
At the same time, she emphasized that the display of physical nooses was really just the embodiment of the institutional racism she has encountered as a Black woman in the construction industry over the course of her career.
“Those nooses are no different than being disrespected when I walk into an office space,” McKissack said. That disrespect toward her — she started her own construction company 30 years ago — is like “an invisible noose,” she said, one she has had to overcome repeatedly in her career.
“In my early years, I walked into an industry that had very few Black people, especially in management roles,” McKissack said. “The things that were said to me, I just can’t let that affect me, because that’s just people projecting their hate that’s inside of them. But that’s not who I am. They can’t control my future. I do.”