From jobsites to conference rooms, racism persists in construction
In the middle of too many packed workdays, Gregory Malcolm’s schedule of advancing construction projects and growing his company is interrupted by encounters with racism.
A civil engineer, construction professional and founder of IronShore Contracting, Malcolm has encountered implicit bias, inequality and outright racism within the construction industry.
There are the valets who ask if he is in the wrong place when he arrives for a professional meeting or industry event. There was the worker on a project site who intercepted and questioned Malcolm as he walked through checking on his crew’s progress. Dressed in work clothes, work boots and a hard hat, Malcolm replied that he was working. The man said he didn’t believe Malcolm because he wasn’t carrying tools. And there was the kickoff meeting for a project in which IronShore had landed a $700,000 contract.
“Three times, the owner’s rep came up to me and said, ‘You’re Greg Malcolm?’ I would say yes and finally his response was, ‘You’re nothing like I pictured.’ I said, ‘Wow, I guess I’m taller than your imagination allows,’” Malcolm said. In the eyes of too many people, “I am never the president of a company, ever.”
The incidents go beyond verbal slights and hassling. Sometimes they interfere with projects.
“If you give advice to try to avert a problem you see coming in a project, it is often met with a lot of cynicism and disbelief,” Malcolm said. “However, in a meeting two or three months later, someone else of a different hue will say exactly the same thing and suddenly the reaction is, ‘That’s a great idea. Let’s move with that.’ I’m left sitting there thinking I could have saved you eight weeks and that’s real time in a construction project.”
On construction sites, African American workers can face a double standard.
“I have worked with different races in the field and oftentimes there is a preconceived notion that Black people don’t like to work,” said Terae Kearney, project manager at IronShore.
In those circumstances, Black employees need to work harder to prove themselves, minority-owned contractors need to deliver higher standards of construction, and Black construction professionals have to conduct themselves with extra care, she said.
“Growing up, I was always taught that you have three strikes against you – you are a woman, you are a Black woman and you are an educated Black woman,” said Kearney, who is a civil engineer. “I use that as fuel” to excel in an industry dominated by white men.
On occasion, racism creates outright threats on construction sites. This summer, construction crews have discovered nooses hanging at several across the country and in Canada.
“There is still a lot of overt, active racism and discrimination — nooses being hung up in port-a-johns, writings on equipment of ‘Go home n-word’ — and it’s not getting any better,” said Dan Moncrief, President of the National Association of Minority Contractors. “There was a period about 10 years ago when it seemed to be getting better. In the last three or four years, we have been getting complaints and hearing testimony that this is happening again at an increasing level all over the country.”
In the midst of that disturbing trend, Moncrief said he also sees signs of hope. “Our national and local offices are getting calls from people who are saying, we get it, the light bulbs have gone off, we want to do better, let’s have a dialogue. So I am hopeful.”
Large construction companies, such as Hensel Phelps and Skanska, have launched anti-racism initiatives. Associated General Contractors formed the Culture of CARE — a program of educational resources and human resources tools to promote the development of welcoming, diverse, equal workplaces.
Eradicating discrimination from the construction industry, however, will require major effort, Malcolm said. “As a whole, the industry will have to go through the cultural change that the country is going through right now.”