In August 2020, I posted an article on LinkedIn titled “Racism in Construction”1 in which I shared some extremely difficult experiences. It was my reaction to feeling frustrated, hurt, and deeply saddened by the most recent racially motivated incidents across our country and on jobsites.
I posted the piece with no expectations, and I was amazed by the number of comments it received and by how many times it was shared on social media. People from all walks of life reached out to me about their experiences and thoughts.
From my point of view, I was able to accomplish an unintended outcome – contributing to an emerging, much-needed dialogue about race and equality in the construction industry. In the exchanges sparked by the article, I noticed a genuine atmosphere of honesty, transparency, and education.
In that same spirit of open dialogue, this article includes a reprint of my “Racism in Construction” article along with a heartfelt response from my colleague J. Wickham (Wick) Zimmerman, CEO and Co-Founder of national design-build contracting firm Outside the Lines, Inc. (OTL) based in Orange County, CA and Dallas, TX.
I am deeply grateful to Wick for his willingness to share his feelings and perspectives with the readers of CFMA Building Profits. I couldn’t agree more with him that what is needed most right now is listening and understanding. By learning about other people’s experiences and perspectives – putting ourselves in their shoes – we can renew our shared sense of humanity and compassion for one another.
The following dialogue is meant to bring unspoken perspectives to the surface. I hope you’ll benefit from reading it – and that it will contribute to similar discussions in your workplace and throughout the construction industry.
Racism in Construction
That’s my daughter in the picture. She’s 14 years old, and I had to get her “written permission” to use the picture. She’s starting to “date,” but that’s another story. She’s also biracial.
I’m so tired of hearing about racism, reading about racism, and getting random calls from my white colleagues wanting to talk about racism. [It’s not that I don’t appreciate the feeling behind such calls or believe in the benefits of those conversations; it’s just that, when I wrote this article, I was weary of the need for them.]
I’m the founder of a construction tech startup. I work 12-hour days, nonstop. It absolutely consumes me, but I love it (most of the time). I’m laser-focused while working, and I’m rarely distracted. But every now and then something stops me in my tracks. Today, that something was an article published by Construction Dive about racism in construction.2
If I was only the founder of a construction tech startup, the article would not have impacted me as much. However, I’m a Black founder of a construction tech startup, so the article resonated with me so much that it moved me to write this article to express my thoughts and concerns.
As I read the Construction Dive article, an overwhelming feeling of sadness washed over me. It took me back to my first summer high school job as a laborer who removed shingles from the roof of a very tall building. If you’ve never felt Georgia’s blazing, scorching sun in August, it can be impressively brutal.
In addition to the humidity, heat, and my fear of heights, I got to hear “what do you call a Black guy” jokes. I was a timid kid who wanted to be liked by the older white guys on the jobsite, so I grinned and laughed at the jokes. Deep down I felt humiliated with each passing day. I wanted to quit, but I needed the money for school.
“Bruce, I like you. You’re not like the other coloreds, African Americans, or whatever the hell they want to be called. You’re a good one.” That was the superintendent’s way of complimenting me, and from that point forward, the jokes didn’t seem as personal. The crew got comfortable enough around me to start using the “N” word to describe other Black people, but they weren’t talking about me because “I’m not like the rest of them.”
That summer I left behind a little bit of my dignity. I continued to leave fragments of my dignity here and there with each racial encounter. Little did I know, these encounters began shaping my view of my self-worth and my overall perception of the world. I felt less than most white people, but more than other Blacks. What a twisted way of thinking! This was the mid-1990s, so information was not as readily accessible as it is now, and there was no one I could simply pull aside and ask, “Hey man, do you ever feel like you’re not as good as white folks, but you know that you’re better than everyone else who looks like you (including yourself)?”
I’m happy to say that I’ve managed to work through a lot of that and recover most of my dignity, which has helped me to feel like a whole person. Not better or less than anyone.
Going back to the Construction Dive article, this particular sentence really resonated with me because of my experiences:
“The ways discrimination is expressed varies, readers said, and is often subtle, such as slurs written on portable toilet walls, failing to share information or opportunities with minorities, not passing on knowledge to apprentices of color, or perpetuating racial stereotypes.”3
Subtle racism is tricky and is expressed in more ways than you could imagine. Sometimes, it’s so subtle that you wonder if the person is even aware of it (e.g., “you’re so articulate”).
I know that some may feel like Black people are too sensitive or that a conversation with a Black person is like walking on pins and needles. I wish that things were different. For the sake of my beautiful, biracial, 14-year-old daughter who hasn’t had to leave too many pieces of her dignity behind yet – I really wish it was different.
But here we are, and now we need to ask, “What do we do about it?” While I wish that I had all of the answers, I don’t. However, when you have companies like Turner Construction taking a stand as they did at Facebook’s jobsite in Ohio,4 that’s a step in the right direction. When organizations like CFMA put together a Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, that’s also a step in the right direction. These actions are happening at the corporate and organizational levels, but for those in the field, you can start by grabbing lunch or coffee with someone who doesn’t look like you (practicing social distancing, of course). Get to know them and even find a way to ask some uncomfortable questions in a respectful way. There is so much to be done, and we are all in this together.
Construction often lags behind in many things. However, we can be forward-thinking when it comes to inclusion, diversity, and kindness.
– Bruce Orr
Response from Wick Zimmerman
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and working with Bruce for several years and yet, when I read his article, my eyes were opened to a portion of his life experiences that I could never have imagined.
I experienced multiple emotions when reading his story. First, I was angry that anyone could be so thoughtless and cruel, then I felt disgust at the clear ignorance of some of the people who touched Bruce’s life, and finally I was overwhelmed with sadness. I was sad for Bruce and what he experienced as a hardworking young man, sad for the ignorant workers who stole his dignity in those early moments, and sad that as a modern society, racism still exists.
Bruce reached out and asked if I would be a part of this dialogue about diversity in construction. As I pondered this topic, I wondered: Is systemic racism still “a thing,” and if so, how can it be fixed?
I did not believe that racism was as widespread or systemic as the media portrays it to be. The foundation for my thinking was, of course, my own experiences. As I spoke with Bruce about his life experience, it dawned on me that racism is largely a factor of perception, which is shaped by experience. Those of us who do not encounter racism in our daily lives perceive that it does not exist – or at least not on a large scale. But for those who experience it, racism is very real.
I’m an engineer. I know how to fix things and make them work. There is a precise and orderly satisfaction in working with a group of moving parts individually and collaboratively until finally everything comes together.
In my mind, there must be a solution that could be engineered; a foolproof way to ensure that my friends and colleagues – people of all colors, creeds, and orientations – would not face the same demoralizing closed-
mindedness that Bruce experienced on that hot roof in Georgia so many years ago.
My thoughts turned to my upbringing in Baltimore, MD. Growing up in the city, I was surrounded by diversity. The private all-boys institution that I attended, which has a long track record of success, reflects my own privilege. And yet, because the school had a scholarship program through which many inner-city kids joined our class, my experience there was also one of diversity.
Early in the summer of 2020, my former high school sent out a letter pledging its commitment to positive change in support of calling out racial inequalities. The letter stated in part that “White privilege and racism have perpetuated in our school since its inception.” It went on to address the school’s white and Black communities separately in the letter.
Initially when I read it, I was offended and angry at the letter’s inference that all of us had participated in racism. I felt the tone seemed insincere and patronizing, and while I wanted to respond, I did not dare as I was certain that any objection would cement my place as a racist.
One of my high school friends had signed the letter, which shocked me. This friend, a Black man who has dedicated almost 50 years of his life to that school first as a student and later as athletic director, reached out to me soon thereafter with a personal e-mail.
“I want to say to you that I didn’t take signing the letter lightly, and, in fact, signing it was very hard for me,” his e-mail read. “In truth, I would have preferred to avoid the conflict.”
His note went on to talk about just how difficult it was being a Black man at a predominantly white school. He loved the school, and, while his experience was positive overall, his younger brother’s experience was not. In his brother’s 12 years at the school, he experienced racism and acquiesced to the reality of subtle comments and stereotypes that left him feeling “less than” his peers.
All of this led me to a conclusion: What if the fix we’re all seeking lies not in a grand solution, but within the process itself?
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” The process of learning, listening, and deepening our understanding is more important today than ever before. Now is the time to eschew our old realities and launch open conversations to better understand the human experience. We must ask questions and listen to what our peers have experienced. We must also take the topic seriously and recognize our part in a journey that will ultimately deliver a better life for everyone.
With that, I openly challenge my peers in construction. We, as an industry, must continue to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the realities of racism that still exist after so many years. In the months and years ahead, may each of us ask more questions, listen more intently, and above all else, continue this tremendously important conversation with people from all walks of life.
While the engineer in me still hopes for the perfect fix that will help our society function with genuine respect and without anger and hatred, I recognize that the way to reach that goal is through an ongoing process of open dialogue and open hearts.
Building on that, I thank both Bruce Orr and CFMA Building Profits for publishing this important and extremely timely article. While this type of dialogue is uncomfortable and easy to postpone, we must engage with each other in a quest to better understand what others see and feel. My hope is that my experience may help others to see the importance of these dialogues.
With heartfelt hope for an even brighter future,
- Orr, Bruce. “Racism in Construction.” LinkedIn. August 20, 2020. www.linkedin.com/pulse/racism-construction-bruce-orr?articleId=6702300204697165824.
- Goodman, Jenn. “Readers Respond: Construction faces a ‘racism pandemic.’” Construction Dive. August 20, 2020. www.constructiondive.com/news/readers-respond-construction-faces-a-racism-pandemic/583848.
- Slowey, Kim. “Turner Construction suspends work at $1.7B Facebook site in Ohio due to racist incident.” Construction Dive. August 10, 2020. www.constructiondive.com/news/turner-construction-shuts-down-cincinnati-jobsite-in-response-to-racist-inc/582925.
Copyright © 2021 by the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA). All rights reserved. This article first appeared in January/February 2021 CFMA Building Profits magazine.