by Playthell Benjamin
** Note: This essay (written in 1998 and posted on Benjamin’s Commentaries on 1/16/2014) was originally written for the New Yorker, who refused to publish it upon completion. I believe it is because this analysis of the construction industry impaled too many sacred cows and endangered powerful financial interests. It was too long for any other journalistic publication. So it has never been published before now. My decision to post this study was sparked by a report on the blatant exclusion of Afro-American contractors from the multi-billions of dollar constructions going on in San Francisco (See the Black Boycott). And from reading about the situation I can discern the same forces at work that I found in my investigation of the construction industry in New York 16 years ago.
“It’s economic genocide! That’s exactly what it is. What else can you call a situation where able bodied men who are experienced workers and anxious to work are denied the opportunity to work on city sponsored construction jobs that are going on right in their neighborhood. But that’s just the kinda shit that’s goin’ down out here everyday. Then, if you steal something or deal some dope to try to make ends meet, they send your ass to jail. That’s why the jails are full of young black and Hispanic brothers. Plus, they encourage us to fight and kill each other over the few jobs they do throw our way. What is that if it ain’t genocide?” Vaughn Chambers, organizer for Harlem Fight Back.
The Protracted War on Construction Sites in New York City.
The recent news of buildings falling apart piecemeal, or collapsing outright, all over the metropolitan area – Madison Ave, 42 St., 125 street, Brooklyn, Jersey City, etc – has finally alerted the general public to the fact that something is rotten out there on the construction sites. However, Afro-American workers have long been aware that everything wasn’t kosher in this industry. Many are forced to risk life or limb just to work at their trade. The implications of this situation speak eloquently to the pervasiveness of chicanery and corruption in the construction business, which also results in dangerously substandard work.
As of this writing, the latest instance of murder and mayhem on a construction site – that we know about – occurred sometime around 8:00 am on September 17, 1997. Eric Riddick, a 23-year-old black man, was shot to death on a Diamond Asphalt Company construction site at 214 St. and 91st Ave in Queens Village, where the contractor was laying sewage pipes on a city financed project. Witnesses in nearby houses say they heard some men arguing and when they looked to see what was going down, one of the men pulled a gun and shot the other in the head several times. Then two black men sped away in a jeep.
The police confirmed that minority construction coalitions were fighting to control jobs on this construction project and that Riddick was a member of the Queens Minority Coalition. The day after the murder cops busted Ernest White – whom they identified as the leader of Brooklyn Fight Back, a rival coalition, outside his Carnarsie home and charged him with the crime. Although construction workers questioned at the site swore they didn’t know the victim or the assailants, their denials strain credibility because the incident bears such a striking resemblance to previous coalition murders over construction jobs in Queens.
It is an old story. While walking home from work at a construction site one evening in 1989, Richard Harrison, a member of the Queens Community Coalition, was shot through the head several times at point blank range. The decision to go for the head is compelling evidence that, as with White, the assailants intended to murder rather than maim their victims.
The real cool killer calmly drove up on the service road at 116 St. and Van Wyck Boulevard, and then commenced firing in clear view of several horrified witnesses. It was broad open daylight and the gunman called unnecessary attention to himself by cavalierly driving away in an expensive foreign car with a Chicago license plate. The brazenness of the act made it all the more terrifying.
The assassin would later have cause to regret his flamboyance because the fly car enabled the police to eventually identify him as Kevin Jackson, leader of the black construction worker coalition to which Harrison belonged. As crazy as it all sounds, there was a method to Jackson’s madness. The hit was calculated to instill discipline through fear.
It is a universal management technique employed by Jackson’s role models: the white gangster element who stand in the shadows and dictate so many of the shots in the construction racket – a crew whose secret philosophy and clandestine crimes are poignantly described in Sammy “The Bull” Gravano’s recent best-selling memoir of his life in the mob, “Underboss.”
After it was proven that in 1991 Jackson also ordered a hit on Earl Hicks – a member of the rival Queens Minority Coalition to which the recently murdered Riddick also belonged – whom he had a beef with stemming from an altercation at a construction site, Jackson was convicted of double homicide in Queens Supreme court last July, and sentenced 45 years to double life.
Like Harrison, Hicks got iced walking along the street.on his way to work early one morning, when a hit man called “Little Justice” rolled up on him just three doors away from his house and carried out the contract ordered by Jackson. Hicks had just kissed his wife and children good-bye.
According to Mark Osnowitz, the Assistant DA who successfully prosecuted the case, “There are at least three other murders which have been attributed to Jackson, but we can’t prove it because the witness died.” Although he was stabbed and shot at on several occasions the star witness died of a ruptured blood vessel in the brain- probably from stress. Little justice would later meet poetic justice when he was whacked and torched by unknown assassins. It is not too far fetched to speculate that Jackson may have also ordered that hit because Little Justice could finger him.
At the root of this murderous internecine violence between black construction workers is the struggle for control of the few jobs that the racist mob-ridden construction racket doles out to black and Latino workers. Prosecuting Jackson was an education for Osnowitz who, like most New Yorkers, knew little about the unbridled corruption, violence and racial discrimination in construction before his involvement with this case. Reflecting on the situation he says, “Although I’m a white guy, I fully understand why these black guys form coalitions to try and get work. If I was in their situation I would do the same thing!”
Osnowitz also concluded, “Most of the guys in coalitions started out with good intentions.” But some were corrupted when they discovered that nobody was minding the store and easy money could be made by entering into unholy alliances with devious white contractors, who are more than willing to pay under the table to keep honest black and Latino construction workers and contractors from demanding their fair share of the multi-billion dollar construction pie.
The scam works like this: a contractor forms a relationship with a particular coalition and agrees to hire one of their members as a “Minority Coordinator;” then the contractor throws in a few jobs for the Coordinator’s goons; in return that coalition will police the construction site and keep other minorities off the job.
While minority workers in general suffer from this scurrilous arrangement it is a lucrative operation for the coalition leaders, who get paid big bucks for saving the contractors from having to deal with legitimate labor problems. Kevin Jackson obviously did very well financially. When he was arrested and placed under $350,000 bail, Jackson raised it immediately.
But Osnowitz managed to block the acceptance of the bail money by demonstrating that it could not have come from legitimate sources because according to the records of Jackson’s accountant he made only $10,000 the previous year. Osnowitz explains Jackson’s behavior, and that of other coalition leaders who started out as honest worker advocates but degenerated into gangstas, with the old adage: “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s as simple as that!”
The violence and corruption exposed in the Jackson case is only the tip of the iceberg. As Oznowitz points out, this is the first case of a coalition leader being successfully prosecuted for committing violence against his adversaries because witnesses are afraid to come forward. They are as hard to come by as witnesses against the Mafia.
Yet the workers I talked to are unanimous in the opinion that the situation with so-called “Minority Coordinators” is the worse it’s ever been, and that these guys are indeed paid goons whose real role is to keep honest black and Latino workers off the job by intimidation and violence. “Some of these guys who commit the most serious violence are not even involved with the construction work,” says Oznowitz, “guys like ‘Little Justice’ are hired killers who coalition leaders retain to do their dirty work.”
Even while writing this article I have received constant reports of violence against black and Latino workers trying to ply their trades all over this city. They told me how pliant general contractors, racist unions, indifferent city agencies and criminal extortionist have become strange bedfellows in the undeclared conspiracy to deny them the right to work.
The situation is such that only when there is a construction boom and labor is scarce can minority workers expect a fair chance at finding a job. But normally a black or Hispanic worker – who has been constantly overlooked by his union’s business agent when job assignments were being given out – can start in Harlem and travel downtown in search of construction work and encounter “Minority Coordinators” controlling jobs for various coalitions on job sites all along the way.
For instance, in September the Yonkers Construction Co. was doing a bridge repair job for the Department of Transportation on the 138th street viaduct that connects Harlem to the South Bronx, a mostly black and Hispanic area, and the work crew was virtually all white. One unemployed black worker filmed the site with a video camera in order to document the fact that there were 35 white males, no females, and only 2 black workers on a publicly financed job in their community.
When this worker got together with some other experienced road men and went to the site seeking employment, the project manager referred them to a guy whom a former coalition member described as “an illiterate thug who can’t read or write.” When the black workers asked the project manager for Yonkers why they had to deal with a coalition when the white guys didn’t, they were told it was because the coordinator handled minority hiring. “But we knew we would just get the run around from the coordinator,” one of the workers told me, “because that’s why these guys are there. And, just like we thought, we have yet to get a single job!”
On upper Fifth Avenue near Marcus Garvey Park, in the heart of Harlem, there is a Brownstone restoration project where jobs for minorities are controlled by gangster coalitions. Several workers described the coordinator as an Amazonian woman, “a very butch dyke who packs a pistol on the site,” and has been known to call in armed thugs when their job monopoly is challenged by other black or Latino workers.
However the criminal cowboyism of these coalitions is not confined to areas like Harlem, Queens and the South Bronx, they are just as active downtown. Their presence is felt even on projects managed by the largest and most powerful general contractors in the business. The level of terror these gangsta coalitions have created became crystal clear on a recent occasion when I was sitting in a room in Harlem with a group of hard-boiled construction workers – who had agreed to talk only on the grounds of anonymity – and they were actually afraid to speak the name of Some of their adversaries. Looking around suspiciously at the doors and windows, as if they were expecting goons to bum rush the house at any moment, they whispered tall tales of gun wielding thugs controlling black and Hispanic workers access to construction sites.
They recounted numerous rumbles, with arms ranging from pick axes to pistols, on construction sites all over this city that never made the news. (The murder of Curtis White was buried on page 34 of the Daily News, which is owned by prominent real estate developer Mort Zuckerman, and the article was so carelessly laid out that it ended abruptly in the middle of the story.)
Brooklyn Fight Back, long headed by Trevor Johnson, whose Mercedes driving enforcer “B-Boy” was one of the most feared coalition goons in the city before he disappeared. The word on the street ranges from speculation that he took flight to avoid prosecution, to those who are convinced that his pending indictment led to him being poured into the concrete foundation of a glitzy new building in Manhattan.
Some of the workers at the rap session admitted to having once belonged to these coalitions. The consensus description of their modus operandi went like this: Herd a group of hungry young men eager to find a way to get paid onto a bus; promise them a job if they follow the coalition’s direction; give them beer and Marijuana money; arm them with hard hats, crowbars, hammers and a gun here and there; have them sit around all day getting high and listening to gangsta rap on walkmans and boom boxes, and train them to bust heads whenever their crew leaders get a beep from the Minority Coordinators at the construction site.
As one worker put it “After being cooped up on that hot bus all day gettin’ high, these guys are ready to do near bout anything and feel no pain!” This scenario does much to explain the causes of the escalating violence that goes on at construction sites around New York City.
These tales of rampant gangsterism and corruption, accented by Vaughn Chambers’ grim charge of economic genocide in this era of triumphant American capitalism, may sound like a paranoid nightmare to most people. But to black and Hispanic construction workers in New York City – especially Nuyoricans i.e. Puerto Ricans born and raised in New York, and African Americans – it has the disconcerting ring of truth.
Nor is it surprising that gangsta rap should supply the sound track for these contemporary urban dramas. For it is the music of the dispossessed youth of the post-industrial city, an economic wasteland whose myriad pathologies and tragedies spawned by the struggle for bread is carefully described by Harvard sociologist William J. Wilson in his recent book “When Work Disappears.”
And the brilliant historian of the black laboring classes, Robin D.G. Kelly, a professor of history at New York University, tells us in his seminal book Race Rebels: “Economic restructuring resulting in massive unemployment has created criminals out of black youth, which is what gangsta rappers acknowledge. But rather than apologize or preach, most attempt to rationalize and explain.”
Virtually all of the black and Nuyorican construction workers I talked to believe that their plight is the result of a criminal conspiracy at the top. And it is easy to see why. Beneath the orderly exterior of the construction industry that the public routinely observes when walking past building sites, there lurks a putrid world of racism, sexism, corruption and criminality.
These vices take the form of gender exclusion and crude sexual harassment on the job, wholesale violation of civil rights laws by excluding non-white workers and contractors, widespread refusal to abide by the prevailing wage and benefit laws, flagrant disregard for health and safety regulations, rigged union elections, and the machinations of the invisible hand of organized white crime, who fix contracts and meddles in the affairs of unions and contractors big time.
Industry watchdogs say that there appears to be a kind of selective morality at work, one that says: “So long as the buildings go up on time everything else is cool.” The obvious problem with such a position is that it stands on the same moral ground as those who attempt to justify Nazism because it brought about an economic revival in Germany!
That’s why it was so troubling for people who know the real deal, like Jim Haughton and Gil Banks of Harlem Fight Back, to watch the senior Senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Spector, a Republican, and Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, who was appointed by a Democratic President, buck dancing before the officials of the Building Trades Council at their April Convention.
Spector and Slater seemed to be trying to out-do each other in the extravagance of the government sponsored construction projects they promised, while never saying a mumbling word about the rampant criminality and racism which infests the industry. But, given the flow of construction money into the political process, perhaps the Senator and the bureaucrat were secretly doing an imitation of the three wise monkeys: Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.
It is this kind of genuflection by public officials before those who rule the corrupt building business, and the low-life aristocrats of labor who control the equally corrupt unions, that has led many people fighting for economic justice in the construction racket to conclude that the government, whose job is to enforce fairness in the work place, is part of the problem.
Two-time Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, has been suspiciously silent on the issue of racial exclusion in construction, both in his present position as Mayor and when he was the Federal Attorney for Manhattan. (Some lawyers say Civil Rights cases became persona non grata during his tenure in the Federal Attorney’s office.) And as a result of his 1994 decision not to keep records on the race or gender of those awarded city contracts, the Mayor is destroying the data base upon which future discrimination suits would depend.
The outrageousness of Giuliani’s decision becomes self-evident when we consider the fact that the General Contractors Association – the guys who do the heavy construction on infrastructure like bridges, tunnels, subways etc. – has 120 members but when I called to inquire about the number of black and female owned companies in their membership, I was greeted with double talk about not having the figures at hand.
The Mayor’s decision to conceal the racial and gender identities of the contractors who are awarded city contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year can only aid and abet the conspiracy of silence regarding the issue of race and gender equity in the construction marketplace. This silence on the part of public officials, who are sworn to uphold the law, is perhaps the major reason why contractors and unions feel free to scoff at the law on a wholesale basis.
Rudy’s hostility or indifference to claims of discrimination has resulted in a “gender gap” among educated women, and inspires the chorus of boos which follow him whenever he appears before a black audience. It is a measure of the racial divide in this city that Guliani receives such high marks from white New Yorkers, while even the endorsements of prominent Afro-Americans like labor leader Stanley Hill of District Council 37, along with Democratic Congressmen Floyd Flake and Ed Townes, could not deliver the black vote to Giuliani in the recent mayoral election.
This great racial divide was perfectly symbolized by former Irish basketball great, Al Mcguire, who served as a commentator for the St. Patrick’s Day parade of 1997, standing on Fifth Avenue pouring praise upon the Mayor for doing such a great job running the city, while Gil Banks, whose snow white afro coif and flowing beard give him the look of an old testament prophet, was preparing to lead a group of unemployed black workers and tenants of the Wagner Houses in a demonstration against Vitaka Construction co. Vitaka, who was doing sandblasting for the New York City Housing Authority, was in violation of Section 3 of the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968, as amended 12 USC 1701u, which requires a contractor working in public housing to hire residents and other low-income people in the community.
It is one of many government regulations that are routinely violated by contractors. Banks was acting in his capacity as a leader of Harlem Fight Back – the original coalition of black construction workers and the prototype of all minority coalitions – which is the polar opposite of the goon platoons who masquerade as legitimate organizations. Both Assistant DA Osnowitz, and a spokesman for the Major Case Squad of the city’s Organized Crime Task Force, made it clear that not all minority coalitions are criminal organizations. And Harlem Fight back, which is still mostly black but also admits other men of color and women of all colors, has always been on the up and up.
Banks, a former army engineer, along with founder Jim Haughton – a City College and New YorkUniversity graduate about whom more will be said later – has conducted this type of direct action for over thirty years. Banks argues that what distinguishes them from the extortionist is quite simple: “Jim and I got involved in this fight with contractors for moral reasons, some of these other guys got in it for money.”
In their protracted and principled struggle against the exclusion of African Americans from meaningful participation in the multi-billion dollar construction business, as workers or contractors, Banks and his colleagues are ignored by the media, spurned by city government and menaced by gangsters.
The Supreme Court Drops the Ball
Clearly, no sector of the American economy cries out for serious intervention from the federal government, affirmative action if you will, more than the construction racket. Hence the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in the case of Adarand Vs. Pena, in which the court struck down a Colorado affirmative action program designed to provide minority contractors an opportunity to compete in that state’s construction industry, is based on a false assumption: Such programs are not essential to insuring fairness and equity.
In spite of impressive dissenting opinions a bare majority of the Justices held that the Colorado law was unconstitutional, and they appear to be satisfied that state and federal laws already provide adequate remedies for economic discrimination against non-white minorities and women.
Yet, even Justice O’Conner – who voted with the majority in Pena and had previously written the majority opinion invalidating the consent decree at issue in Richmond vs. J. A. Croson, ending a set-aside contract program designed to compensate for centuries of slavery and discrimination against African Americans in Virginia, added a caveat: “The unhappy persistence of both the practice and the lingering effects of racial discrimination against minority groups in this country is an unfortunate reality, and government is not disqualified from acting in response to it.”
Justice Ginsburg went further in upholding “Congress’ authority to act affirmatively, not only to end discrimination, but also to counteract discrimination’s lingering effects. Those effects, reflective of a system of racial caste only recently ended, are evident in our workplaces, markets and neighborhoods.” And to those who argue that affirmative action equals reverse discrimination as did Justices Scalia, and Thomas – Whom the former Yale Law Dean Vito Calabrisi said was admitted to the school only after they lowered the entrance requirements by 200 points – Justice Steven’s wrote “There is no moral equivalence between a policy that is designed to perpetuate a caste system and one that seeks to eradicate racial subordination.”
This highly contested decision by a bare majority of the Court has given the green light to public officials who are hostile toward the federal government’s efforts to mandate fairness in the marketplace, politicians like Rudy Guliani, who have moved to sabotage those efforts by destroying the public record which provides the evidence of institutionalized race and gender discrimination.
In fact, this was precisely the Mayor’s argument in defense of his decision to jettison the public record in an interview with reporter Randy Kennedy, published in the March 4, edition of the New York Times. Giuliani argued that all affirmative action programs were of “questionable legality ever since federal court decisions declared such practices unconstitutional,” and he declared, “I’ve done away with a lot of that race based analysis.”
While the Mayor prattles on about creating the conditions for minorities to “compete on the open market,” Rowan King, an African American heating and air conditioning contractor, said at an August meeting of struggling black contractors “Now they are excluding us legally.” King estimates that black contractors have received “less than 1% of city contracts” since Giuliani became Mayor.
Under the Dinkins Administration construction contracts awarded to firms owned by minorities and women reached 17.5%. Far more than the brutal racist cops who assaulted Abner Louima in the 70th precinct, white male contractors in this city have good reason to shout, “It’s Giuliani Time!”
It is difficult to understand how the five Judges who made up the majority in Adarand V. Pena could not foresee that this would be the real world result of their decision- particularly poor perjured Clarence, who grew up under the southern caste system and should possess the sixth sense about race matters that Dr. W.E.B. Dubois called “double consciousness” – especially when there is a mountain of evidence strongly suggesting that this would be the case. Much of this evidence was accumulated right here in New York City, the largest construction market in the country.
First there was the harrowing testimony given to lawyers and law professors in a hearing sponsored by The Ad-Hoc Committee for Union Democracy, and then there were Congressional hearings, both of which were held in Brooklyn about ten years before the 1995 Adarand decision. If those transcripts didn’t convince the Court, there remains the extensive data compiled from several hearings conducted by the New York City Human Rights Commission, the last of which was completed only two years before Adarand.
The Congressional hearings were conducted by the Sub-Committee on Transportation, then Chaired by Congresswoman Cadrice Collins of Chicago, with Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens, a committee member, serving as a catalyst for the investigation. The objective of the hearing was to investigate complaints by minority and female entrepreneurs who were trying to qualify for the $100 million in set-aside contracts provided under the Transportation Surface Assistance Act.
A concrete worker and aspiring sidewalk contractor at the time, I was an intensely interested observer at both hearings. And I can testify to the fact that the Congressional Committee got an earful of frank talk about the racist /sexist subterfuge that kept the contractors from qualifying for the set-asides, which were designed to give companies like Pena an opportunity to compete.
Perhaps the most disturbing document presented to the committee was a letter which had been leaked by a black secretary at a major Construction Co., one of the giants of the industry, that instructed white general contractors how to go through the motions of seeking out black subcontractors as required by affirmative action guidelines, while simultaneously taking a variety of covert actions to insure that it never happens. The secretary, who chose anonymity, claimed the letter had been distributed at a meeting of general – i.e. white male – contractors.
When I read the document I had no doubt of it’s veracity, because it explained the mysterious forces behind all the horror stories of racism and duplicity I heard from struggling black contractors on the street, some of whom came before the Committee. Even a cursory investigation of the charges made by these contractors will quickly reveal the duplicity inherent in the arguments of those who rail against “results oriented” affirmative action, and expose all the talk about how disadvantaged white male contractors are as a result of set-aside contracts earmarked for African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and white women as much ado about nothing!
The main obstacles encountered by these small companies trying to break into Department of Transportation sponsored road and bridge work as subcontractors were: under capitalization, lack of experience, and inability to acquire a performance bond. These problems are still common to virtually all black contractors and they are interrelated, because if a subcontractor lacks experience it provides an excuse for the general contractor to demand a performance bond, which along with insurance costs, is financially prohibitive for companies with limited capital.
If a small start-up company manages to overcome these barriers, a hostile general contractor can easily force them out of business by holding up payments the subcontractor desperately needs to pay for labor and materials as the project proceeds, thus forcing them into default.
These factors are aggravated by institutionalized racism and thus insure that most black subcontractors will not succeed. On the other hand, working through old boy networks or mob connections, many white male subs are guaranteed success because the general contractors waive the performance bond, advance them adequate capital to start the job, and pay them on a timely schedule as the job develops. This is the real skinny on how deals are done in the construction racket!
It was well within the means of the Supreme Court to determine if the conditions described in the testimony before these various hearings still prevail. Failure to do so borders on a dereliction of duty, for that is the factual foundation upon which a just verdict on affirmative action must rest. Alas, the majority of the high Court Judges, their judgment calloused by ideology, were unpersuaded by the abundant evidence of organized resistance to racial inclusion in the construction industry, which under girded the arguments presented by the attorneys for Pena.
The Adarand decision represents the triumph of a “strict constructionist” majority on the court, which every Republican president since Nixon has promised to bring about. These Jurist reject the progressive vision of the Constitution held by the late Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennen, who viewed the Constitution as a living document which must accommodate itself to the pressing realities of the times.
The wisdom of this approach is as self-evident as the fact that no 18th century theory of government, conceived in a slave society, can operate unaltered in the last decade of the Twentieth Century. Failure to understand this transparent fact is at the root of contemporary controversies ranging from affirmative action, to whether or not the second amendment sanctions the right of private militias to bear military arms.
During his speech before the Building Trades Council – a meeting I watched on C-Span, where the only black face I saw was his – Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater was prolific with pious platitudes about using the considerable economic power of his office, like the $175 billion construction program that his department will administer, to help disadvantaged minority groups help themselves. But he failed to mention the implications of Adarand V. Pena, although the barriers to minority participation embodied in this decision will make it virtually impossible for the Secretary – who is African American – to carry out his promises.
The difficulties for black contractors seeking to expand their share of government construction contracts after Adarand is suggested by the new affirmative action guidelines issued from the Clinton Administration in August. In their attempt to “mend it but don’t end it,” the Administration is in the process of making affirmative action programs meaningless to African Americans by including everybody with a grievance.
And for foes of affirmative action, like Mayor Giuliani, decisions such as Adarand and Croson have supplied the rationale they need to end it, which the Mayor has done with respect to city contracts. There is a cruel irony in the Mayor’s choice, because New York City is one of the jurisdictions that could easily meet the “strict scrutiny” standard imposed by Croson and Adarand for establishing affirmative action programs.
Although the Mayor was quite incensed about the 10% discount that affirmative action programs provided minority and female contractors bidding on city contracts during the Dinkins Administration- a provision that allowed the city to award contracts to these companies even though their bids were 10% higher than companies owned by white males – he has said virtually nothing about barring construction companies and unions with Mafia ties from doing business with the city. (Except in the case of the Javitz Center, which was instigated by Governor Pataki) This attitude is difficult to explain since, having spent time as a federal prosecutor who specialized in mob investigations, Rudy has to know how influential La Cosa Nostra is in the construction racket.
Married to the Mob
Milicent Clarke, an Afro-American lawyer who recently quit the Federal Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, says that although mob connections are not always obvious in construction unions, her investigations led her to believe “they are all connected in some way.” This is a chilling observation because many of the sub-contractors come up from the ranks of trade unionist.
To his credit Giuliani has driven the mob out of the Fulton Fish Market and the San Genarro Festival, and he has them on the run in the private carting industry. But the word on the street is that they continue to do as they damn well please in the construction racket. This view is supported in a report by the CBS news magazine, “Sixty Minutes,” aired on 1/22/95, which revealed that three construction companies working on the new federal court house in down town Manhattan were identified as mob owned by the Federal Organized Crime Task Force!
There can be no doubt that when it comes to promoting unfair competition in construction, the mob is a far worst culprit than affirmative action programs ever were. In fact, in areas where the mob has interest – especially concrete – they have literally wiped out the competition. It is an open secret among people in the building business, from laborers to CEO’s of major firms, that the Mafia controls the concrete supply. This holds true even on government projects where the sponsoring agency must accept the lowest bid.
I was provided a concrete example of the roadblocks facing a black man trying to break into sidewalk construction, when I sought to win a minority set-aside contract under the Transportation Surface Assistance Act. Before I could even prepare a bid an affirmative action officer in the State Department Of Transportation discouraged me.
The officer appeared to be well meaning when he pulled my coat at a DOT orientation meeting in the World Trade Center. To my surprise, he confidentially told me that unless I had worked out a deal for concrete, I would never succeed because I wouldn’t be able to find the kind of reliable supply that would enable me to complete projects on time. And he strongly hinted that if one does not have mob contacts the chances of finding a dependable source of concrete were slim and none. He suggested that I try bridge painting, a trade in which I had no expertise and the cost of performance bonds and insurance is enough to knock a small start-up company out before they ever really get in the game.
After pestering a tight lipped Assistant District Attorney who investigates organized crime and labor in this city, trying to find out if the mob’s role in the concrete business had changed over the last ten years, he finally said that although he would never discuss ongoing investigations, if I really wanted to understand how the mob influences the construction industry I should read Sammy Gravano’s book. It proved to be a valuable recommendation because this book is a treasure trove of information about mob activities in labor unions and the construction industry at large. It connects the dots, completing pictures that were only hazy outlines before homicidal Stool Pigeon Sammy the Bull.
Sammy the Bull. Sammy put the Mob’s Business in the Street
Among the compelling revelations of Sammy The Bull, is his description of the Concrete Club. “Certain concrete pouring contractors were allowed to be part of what was called the ‘Concrete Club.’ says Gravano. “Each of the families controlled one or more of these companies. It was the only way they could avoid sudden union problems or cutoffs in concrete deliveries.” The way the mob controlled who got which contracts to pour concrete was by dictating which companies would be allowed to bid and at what price. Obviously this scheme would work even on government jobs because they could control the low bid.
Naturally, this monopoly over a building material of such fundamental importance meant the price became inflated. “If one of them gets a contract for, say, thirteen million, the next thing you know, after he knows he got it, he jacks up the whole thing before it’s over to a sixteen or seventeen million dollar job.” says Sammy. As a result of this criminal manipulation of the market, the cost of concrete in Manhattan rose to $85 per cubic yard, which was the highest in the nation. Although there is no way to know for sure, I suspect there is but slight exaggeration when Gravano claims, “It’s not one job, two jobs. It’s everything in the city. Every major project in the city of New York controlled by us. And the prices keep getting inflated.”
While the mob has a lock on concrete, they are also well represented in other areas of the business. Gravano tells us that when he decided to get in the plumbing and drywall business, Big Paul Castellano – who was the Godfather of the Gambino family in which Sammy was a solider until John Gotti had him whacked and took over – told him “You need entree into the unions, the contractors, anybody, you let me know. We own them all. I’ll help you.” “And he did,” says Gravano, who became a big drywall contractor, forming a partnership with Joe Madonia, a businessman outside of the Mafia who owned Ace Partitions. They operated on subcontracts from Louie DiBono, a made member of the Gambino family and one of the biggest drywall contractors in the city.
Although these were mostly non-union jobs where they were “lumping the rock” – the practice of paying carpenters based on how many boards of sheet rock they can hang per day, a kind of piece work which is prohibited by union rules and a major source of prevailing wage violations – they still had to pay off union officials because they were employing as many as 200 carpenters at a time. “In the building trades, the key to nonunion labor was Costra Nostra control of union shop stewards, “says Gravano, “many of whom were made members or had put sons or relatives in as stewards.”
I can attest to Gravano’s claims regarding mob success at corrupting the union steward system, which enabled them to beat the workers out of fair wages and benefits, because I witnessed it first hand. In the mid eighties when I was a member of District Council 9 – Painters, Plasterers and Allied Trades – there was constant talk of mob influence in union affairs.
Now I know that those suspicions were justified because Gravano has identified DC-9 as a fiefdom of the Luccese crime family. Having observed numerous infractions of union rules on the work floor, I decided to become a steward so that I could defend our rights as workers. After completing a training course required by the office of Occupational Health and Safety, I was poised to do battle with any boss who failed to live up to the letter of the contract.
But before I could charge out and save the day, my Business Agent, Sonny Kasiniak, a charming cherubic Polish American fellow who appointed the stewards from Local 18, pulled me aside and cut a little jig while whispering this bit of advice: “If you wanna succeed as a steward in this union Benjamin, you gotta learn to dance the way the music plays.”
Not long after I dropped out of the construction racket to pursue the writing game full time at the end of the decade, I heard that the Local President was gunned down gangland style. The value to contractors of being able to sidestep union contracts is spelled out by Gravano. He claims, “On average, a subcontractor using union labor might expect a profit margin of 15 percent. With nonunion workers, the profit was 30 percent or more.” While The Bull is no longer in the construction racket, the practices he describes are flourishing. For evidence of this claim, one need look no further than the construction project the Brooklyn DA busted up at Kings County Hospital last year.
On April 23, 1997 the Brooklyn DA’s office issued a 328-count indictment against Ahmet Erdogan, Everton Millin and Kachikwulu Nwosu, for fraud, perjury, grand larceny, and violating the New York state prevailing wage law. Erdogan is the CEO of ESNA International Contractors, a construction company based in the Bath beach section of Brooklyn, while Nwosu and Millin are the principal owners of Enviro Contracting Corporation and E. G. M. Industrial Contracting Inc., the Bronx subcontractors who conspired with ESNA to defraud workers of their legally mandated wages and benefits.
According to the indictment these contractors were defrauding the workers of between $1,000 and $1200 a week. The bid called for wages and benefits that averaged $1500 a week for carpenters hanging dry wall, but the contractors were paying between $300 and $500 a week with no benefits!
Usually prevailing wage violations are discovered when some outraged worker gets up the gumption to file charges with the Wage and Hour division of the Department of Labor, or report it to the DA’s office. But, based on statements made to the press, the workers on the King’s County job didn’t even know that they were being robbed. Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hines’ office became aware of the scam going down at Kings County by accident.
According to Brooklyn Assistant D.A., Dennis Hawkins, who heads the Labor Crimes and Racketeering Units, they were listening to a wire tap trying to bust an illegal gambling operation and heard the contractors joking about how they were fleecing the workers by underpaying them and pocketing the difference. “Violations of prevailing wage and benefits laws are widespread throughout the city, but DA Hines is seriously committed to punishing the offenders in Kings County because they are ripping off the taxpayers as well as the workers,” says Hawkins.
Too bad Hines’s vigilance has not been duplicated by District Attorneys in other boroughs, especially in the Bronx and Queens, because lumping the rock is the dominant practice outside Manhattan. According to Gil Banks, Harlem Fight Back constantly receives complaints about prevailing wage violations. “It’s everywhere,” says Banks, “especially on jobs with contractors doing work for giant city agencies like Housing Preservation and Development and the School Construction Authority. Twenty years ago a carpenter averaged about thirty boards a day, but now contractors who are lumping demand 60 to 80 boards a day. Painting and tile contractors have speeded up production and are paying substandard wages too.”
The situation is so bad that most black and Hispanic workers I interviewed – who are most often forced to take this kind of nonunion work because of discrimination in their unions – believe that the do-nothing posture of government agencies charged with enforcing prevailing wage laws mean that they are either indifferent to their plight or are in collusion with corrupt contractors to defraud them.
“Maybe it looks that way from their perspective,” says Jack Kelly, the Assistant District Director of the New York office of the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, “but the problem is that this is a city with a few million workers and several hundred thousand employers, and I only have ten investigators on a good day. Furthermore, we don’t just investigate the construction industry; we also enforce the garment industry stuff, the Cathy Lee stuff. We don’t just deal with prevailing wage issues either; we enforce ninety different laws.”
What all of this adds up to in terms of getting a final adjudication of one’s case according to Kelly is, ”If the charge is something that we can handle administratively a settlement can be reached in a few months. But if the contractor denies that he is guilty of the charge, forcing us to go to court to resolve the matter, it could take years before the case is settled.” The trouble is that for the injured parties the snails pace of the proceedings calls to mind the old adage “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” After all, one can go from riches to rags in all that time.
Larry Hartstien, an Inspector with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, dose not offer a reason for optimism either. “We don’t have the manpower to police all the contracts with the MTA,” says Hartstien, “there are thousands of contracts let every year. But if something comes to our attention that seems wrong we will certainly take a look at it. When we receive a complaint the first thing we do is to see if we have jurisdiction, it could get deferred out to the state or federal Departments of Labor, it depends on the type of contract that’s involved.”
But Hartstien assured me that his agency was beyond the machinations of local politicians because “We are an independent watchdog agency who report straight to the Governor and the legislature.” The latter comment never failed to elicit hearty laughter when I repeated it to people who monitor the construction industry.
Ultimately the city government must bear responsibility for the various abuses of workers discussed here, because city regulations allow agencies to do business with non-union contractors. By law, these contractors are required to maintain safe working conditions and pay prevailing wages and benefits.
When bids estimating the cost of doing a job are submitted to government agencies that sponsor construction projects, the wage and benefit package must be included. But, as Assistant DA Hawkins discovered, many contractors seek to evade actually fulfilling this mandate because they can inflate their profits by pocketing the difference. The city government does little to enforce these laws and many interested observers believe this is because most of the exploited workers are black or Hispanic.
The comptroller’s office has ultimate responsibility for policing prevailing wage laws because they have the payroll information, which contractors are required by law to submit. But while Alan Hevisi, the New York City Comptroller, has demonstrated a willingness to enforce the law when construction workers file complaints with proof of violations, he dose not have the resources to conduct independent investigations of all the construction projects in this city.
Hevisi’s problem is made more difficult due to the fact that most workers who are victims of prevailing wage violations either do not understand the law, or don’t believe anything will be done about it, or are too glad to be working to risk rocking the boat. The contractors know this and it emboldens the crooks, who are making mischief everywhere.
Finally, the national leadership of the Carpenters had had enough of the manipulations of the criminal element and decided to exorcise the Costra Nostra demons that plagued their union. On June 26, 1996 Douglas J. McCarron, the General President of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, sacked the powerful president of the New York District Council, Frederick W. Divine, because of Divine’s corrupt administrative practices and his alleged ties to organized crime.
Accompanied by twelve well armed private security men, McCarron changed the locks on the doors of Devine’s posh offices at 395 Hudson Street while the local boss was out of town, seized all records of union activity, then notified Devine that he and his top aids were fired. This was the kind of courageous move that is too seldom seen in big time construction unions.
The events that led to this action provide a good look at the corruption and criminality that infects the building trades. After reading the testimony of witnesses for the prosecution in civil and criminal cases who accused Devine of connections to the Gambino and Genovese families – Gravano also refers to “the Genovese family, who control the carpenters” – McCarron, who had only been elected to the union presidency seven months earlier, concluded that Devine was engaging in activities which were “detrimental to the welfare and interest of the membership.”
Among Devine’s activities which McCarron considered “detrimental” to union members was: secretly raising his salary to $360,791 a year, spending $100 million on a new headquarters building, assigning reputed Genovese crime boss Liborio Bellomo’s brother-in-law Anthony Fiorino to dispense jobs at the Javitz Center, so that a year after Governor Pataki ordered the purge of gangster elements at the Center mob flunkies continued to get jobs worth a million dollars a year while 40% 0f the union membership was unemployed.
But even after McCarron’s courageous actions the New York Post reported in its July 5, 1996 edition that “More than half the workers on a list of mob linked carpenters ousted in the Javitz Center cleanup are still getting plenty of work.” The records examined by the Post showed that the difference in earnings between mob connected workers and honest union members averaged $8,000 between November of 1995 and April of 1996. And for Vinny Gigante, the nephew of recently convicted mob kingpin Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, Michael Monaco, a reputed associate of the Genovese mob, and two others, the difference in wages was $18,000.
Furthermore, according to Douglas Banes, the national Vice President of the carpenters union, Devine’s extravagances – which included doling out $60,000 a year to a girlfriend for a no show job and $105,000 to his son to serve as a special assistant – nearly bankrupted the local. Under Devine’s leadership the local’s treasury went from $6.45 million to $224,000, and the health and benefit fund lost $22 million. On top of all this the United States Department of Labor is suing the local for diverting $37 million in benefit funds to pay union bills.
It is instructive that it was officials of the national union, with the assistance of armed private security men, who removed Devine and his cronies from power. The armed security men then stood guard while those officials attempted to reorganize the local. I was reminded of the fate of the late Teamster boss, Jimmy Hoffa, as I stood outside the “members only” meeting held a few days after Devine’s removal at the Sheraton New York & Towers, which was patrolled by a platoon of gun totin guards and bomb sniffing dogs. These people had no illusions about whom they were dealing with! Many observers, this writer included, thought it should have been the law enforcement agencies performing the task of protecting the union officials and Devine should have been in jail.
In October 1996, Devine was finally indicted by a grand jury sitting in Manhattan on eight counts of grand larceny and may finally be put away. But even these indictments are no guarantee that justice will be done. Devine’s predecessor was tried on federal bribery charges and beat the case. And an earlier Council president, Teddy Maritas, simply disappeared while on trial for collaborating with the mob to control the dry wall industry in New York City.
When we examine the cast of murderous characters who controlled the drywall industry on behalf of the Gambino family, it is no surprise that Maritis vanished without a trace. They had plenty of practice at it. Gravano cites several tough guys who exhausted their usefulness to the mob and was taken out. In a union with this kind of persistent corruption at the top it should come as no surprise that African Americans, other nonwhites and women – regardless of race – have been unable to get a fair break in the carpenter’s trade.
While there is no telling what percentage of construction unions are secretly in bed with the mob, virtually all the workers I talked to believe, like ex- federal attorney Millicent Clarke, that most New York locals are undercover lovers with La Costra Nostra. And according to “The Bull” they are right. Interestingly enough the sins of Devine, as catalogued in public statements issued by the national union leadership, does not include any condemnations of racial and gender bias. Ironically, as Harlem Fight Back’s Jim Haughton has pointed out, “When whites in the construction industry decided to ignore the laws prohibiting race and gender discrimination they opened the door for other types of criminal activity.”
It is no wonder that the carpenter’s union resisted requests to provide the New York Human Rights Commission with figures showing the racial and gender breakdown of its journeyman work force. And it is no surprise that, like black iron workers and sheet metal men, Afro-American and Latino master carpenters are still struggling to get work even after earning their union books. The horror stories are endless.
Mayor Dave Dinkins Orders an Investigation. And Exposed Pervasive Racial Discrimination
The long struggle to integrate the building trades has resulted in numerous Federal Court orders mandating that the unions diversify their membership. Among the unions who are presently under court orders are: Locals14 &15 of the Operating Engineers, Local 580 of the Ornamental Iron workers, Local 28 of the Sheet Metal workers, Local I of the Elevator constructors, Local 638 of the Steamfitters, Local 40, of the Structural Iron Workers, Local 46 of the Wire Latherers, et. al. And, like the carpenters, most of these unions also refused to cooperate with the Human Rights Commission’s investigation.
David Raff, a private lawyer, was appointed a “Special Master” by the Federal Court and empowered to monitor three of these unions to insure that they carry out the court’s orders. Raff, who presently devotes 40% of his law practice to his Special Master’s duties, has gained a unique perspective on the issue of racial exclusion in the trade unions.
Like DA Oznowitz, Raff has been afforded an opportunity to view the consequences of racism in the construction business from a vantage point rarely seen by upper middle class white males. And what he has discovered profoundly troubles him. “Based upon my analysis of the State Department of Labor’s statistics, in all of the unions who were under court order, except for those who have a Special Master like myself, the numbers of minorities have actually dropped since the original order due to lack of enforcement,” says Raff.
One reason why these racist practices persist, in spite of many other reforms in big labor, is because they have deep historical roots. When many construction unions were originally formed – often as craft guilds which later became the American Federation of Labor – most had a clause restricting membership to ‘sober industrious white men.”
Thus virtually all the unions in the building trades have functioned like the infamous “jobs reserve system” in South Africa under apartheid, which legally excluded people of color from participation in the highly paid skilled trades. Although this kind of blatant racial discrimination is now illegal in the USA, it is pretty much the standard practice in the building trades in New York City, while the Mayor chats mumbo jumbo and looks the other way.
The New York City Human Rights Commission has documented the persistence of these exclusionary policies well in a series of investigations over the years. The Commission first issued reports on the discriminatory practices in the construction industry back in 1963 and 1967. The last report was issued on December 20, 1993, thirty years after the initial report. “Building Barriers: Discrimination In New York City’s Construction Trades,” is an extensive study which document many of the same violations that originally brought the construction industry under the Commission’s scrutiny.
Since the racism and corruption cataloged in “Building Barriers” largely occurred during the twelve years in which the colorful and pugnacious Edward I. Kotch was Mayor of New York, the ex-Mayor’s vociferous claims that he is opposed to discrimination based on race and gender presents us with an enigma, especially since he is an impassioned opponent of affirmative action to remedy this grievous situation. However the present Mayor’s response to the report was predictable; he dismissed this massive study as political propaganda designed to embarrass the Koch administration.
It was reminiscent of his response to the famous Mollen Commission report on police corruption. Speaking before a crowd of riotous cops in front of City Hall, candidate Giuliani called the report “bullshit!” Many New Yorkers, this writer included, believe that it is this attitude on the part of the Mayor that is responsible for the crisis in police community relations that emboldened the racist cops who committed the atrocity against Abner Louima.
In their summary statement addressed to Mayor Dinkins, who ordered the investigation, the Human Rights Commission called the multi-billion dollar construction business “a critical area of human rights abuse in New York City… The construction industry offers a textbook study of the pattern, practice and impact of institutionalized exclusion. It is a story of the failure of business, union and political leadership to insure equal opportunity in an industry that could provide meaningful career and financial opportunities for many disadvantaged New Yorkers.”
The construction industry – which employs around 100,000 workers and generates billions of dollars annually – is an excellent barometer for gauging the effectiveness of anti-discrimination laws because new jobs are starting up all the time. And while construction unions guarantee wages, benefits and working conditions there is no seniority on most jobs.
Hence with each new project all workers start out on an equal footing in terms of eligibility for employment; they are distinguished only by their skills ratings as a journeyman or an apprentice. However the level of skill a construction worker can acquire is determined by access to union sponsored apprenticeship programs, which are notorious for their ethnic nepotism and exclusion of women, African Americans and other men of color.
In view of their racist and sexist practices it is no wonder that both contractors and unions resisted testifying before the Human Rights Commission. And the contractors were even more tight lipped than the unions. It got so bad the Commissioners felt compelled to apologize for “the lack of hard information provided by contractors in each of the trades.” Despite issuing invitations to 20 major contractors to submit information on their hiring practices, “only a handful testified or submitted written data.” Although some unions responded to the invitation to testify, the report states that the main reason why the hearings took two and a half years to complete was because “Many of the unions invited to testify would not come forward until subpoenaed. Several refused to comply with subpoenas issued in the summer of 1990, leading to a state Supreme Court decision and Appellate Court decision in favor of the commission in 1992.”
A representative sample of the numbers on apprentices and journeymen submitted by the unions tell the story of race and gender discrimination in dramatic fashion. Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, had around 2,100 apprentices. Of these 349 were minorities (male and female) and 37 were white females, which totals about 18.4%.
This equaled the percentage of minority men and females of all races among the journeyman in the union, which was 18.2%. Of approximately 8,340 journeymen 1,465 were minority males and 55 were females of all races. Of 267 apprentices in the Tile and Carpet Layer trade 204 were white males, 60 (22.5%) people of color and 3 (1.1%) females.
As the Commission noted, in a city with a minority population approaching 50%, these figures connote a widespread pattern of discrimination in the construction industry. And when white women are added to the mix, the over representation of white males in this well paid work force is a scandal. And, we must remember, these figures only tell us how many non-whites and women hold union books, they don’t tell us how many of them are actually working.
According to longtime industry watchers like Jim Haughton, the situation has not improved since the report was released in December 1993. “Racism in the construction business is the worst I’ve seen it since I started monitoring the industry 32 years ago,” says Haughton.
The Illusive Search for a Remedy to Institutional Racism
The case of local 28, of the Sheet Metal Workers, provides a compelling example of the tenacity of institutionalized racism in the building trades, since even the intervention of government agencies and the courts have not been able to completely eradicate their long standing practices of racial exclusion. As far back as 1948 the New York State Division of Human Rights ordered the union to remove the restrictive language “Caucasians Only” from its bylaws stipulating who could seek membership. Yet despite deleting the language, racial discrimination remained the practice.
It took a formal complaint by a black Air Force veteran in 1963, fifteen years later, to spark a City Human Rights Commission investigation resulting in a report to Mayor Wagner, which found that of 3,300 journeyman and apprentices in local 28, none were black! These developments led to the 1964 ruling from the State Human Rights division ordering the union to end their policy of excluding Afro-Americans.
Blatant discrimination in the sheet metal trade continued on such a scale that by 1971 the United States Department of Justice intervened, filing a suit in federal court charging local 28 with violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. New York City and State governments joined the suit and in 1975 the United States District Court found that local 28 was guilty of discriminating against black workers.
As a remedy Judge Robert L. Carter – who as a young lawyer was part of the team headed by Thurgood Marshall that won the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education case before the Supreme Court, ending legal segregation in the US – ordered the union to set a quota of 29% minority membership by July 1, 1981.
However, the resistance of union leaders was such that they failed to meet this quota by a wide margin. The City and State requested an order of contempt based on the union’s failure to comply with the court ordered affirmative action plan and the union was found guilty. Local 28 was fined $150,000 and ordered to establish an Employment, Training, Education and Recruitment Plan.
The union continued to appeal the court’s affirmative action plan however, and in 1986 the case reached the Supreme Court, which upheld the lower courts 29% quota by a 5-4 decision. It is instructive that the Reagan Republican Justice Department -in which Rudolph Giuliani was a prominent member – opposed the court’s order as unfair to whites, although they could offer no remedy for the union’s long history of excluding Afro-Americans and other workers of color. This was a drastic departure from Republican policy under the Nixon Administration.
The Reagan administration’s hostility to these mandates is typical of those, regardless of party affiliation, who so vigorously oppose affirmative action while offering no effective alternative. Ed Koch, a life long Democrat who was Mayor of New York from 1978 to 1990, a period when the debate over affirmative action was raging, is an excellent case-in-point. While insisting that he is no racist and stands for racial justice, he is a bitter foe of affirmative action remedies because he says they “discriminate against poor white males.”
Instead Koch would substitute these effective strategies for vague programs based on economic status that does not privilege sex and race. The result of this approach is that race and gender discrimination was rife in the construction industry when he was Mayor. I witnessed it first hand, but the facts contained in “Building Barriers” are a far more powerful indictment than my personal anecdotes.
Hence I will suffice it to say that we “colored guys” were always the last hired and the first fired; women were treated with open hostility by the “poor white males” who acted as if their turf was being invaded by alien creatures, and I have yet to find a black contractor who got a set-aside contract that amounted to more than chump change. Even now, almost a decade later, the percentage of work – in the private or public sector – which goes to black contractors, is statistically insignificant. In spite of all the blarney about set-aside contracts!
While it was during the Johnson administration that “goals and timetables” first appeared in the language of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance’s affirmative action directives to federal contractors, the Nixon Labor Department made them specific. In 1969, the Labor Department investigated complaints of racial exclusion in the building trades in Philadelphia, and created the “Philadelphia Plan” as a remedy. After it was determined that racism in the unions was responsible for the absence of black workers on construction sites, contractors were given the responsibility for correcting the situation.
The plan mandated for instance, that 5-9% of ironworkers on all federal construction jobs in Philadelphia be non-white or female by 1970, and 22-26% by 1973. Nixon’s Secretary of Labor, George Shultz, said “I had… broken, with a sledge-hammer called the Philadelphia Plan, the quota system (zero) in the skilled construction trades.” Shultz was anything but a wild eyed liberal, yet he was offended by the blatant apartheid he found in the building trades.
If the Philadelphia Plan had been extended to all American cities, and its provisions rigorously enforced, we would not have many of the problems of racism and sexism, which plague the industry today. And if the Philadelphia Plan were complemented by court orders to integrate the unions, like those imposed by Judge Carter on Local 28, we would now have something approaching equity.
This kind of affirmative action is critical just now because, according to former Federal Attorney Millicent Clarke, the federal prosecutor’s office is restrained from investigating discrimination in construction by jurisdictional fiat. “I had been told by Jim Haughton, and other people I know who work in construction, that racial discrimination was epidemic in the business,” says Ms. Clarke, “so I started observing construction sites and I saw what they were talking about.”
What Clarke discovered was “a massive case of discrimination. We attempted to do something about it,” she says. “I’ve been investigating this matter for quite a while now, and we were attempting to bring an action. However, when we researched the law very carefully we found that the jurisdiction was solely in the hands of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and that we didn’t have the authority to bring the action the way we wanted to bring it. And the EEOC has basically done nothing! Congress has given the authority to the EEOC and they are not doing their job. We cannot go in their stead into the courtroom.”
While the EEOC is restricted to civil cases the federal prosecutors are not, and Ms. Clark said they were launching a criminal investigation. While she would say nothing about that investigation, she did say, “It won’t bring the remedy you want in terms of racial discrimination, which is a civil matter.”
But, like the state and federal agencies that monitor prevailing wage laws, the EEOC also cries poor mouth and claims it does not have the resources to take on a massive industry like the construction business. Spencer H. Lewis, the Director of the New York area office of the EEOC and a lawyer who litigated the Local 28 case, says in response to the charge that they are not doing their job: “We have been involved in existing craft union lawsuits since 1976, and we are still involved in litigation in the construction industry. For us to do significantly more we would need substantially more resources given the fact that we have five statutes to enforce.”
Aside from racial matters the EEOC is charged with enforcing anti-discrimination laws relating to age, equal pay, disabilities, and the Rehabilitation Act. Furthermore, the New York area office covers all of New York State, the five New England States, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
To carry out its mission of enforcing the five statutes under it’s mandate in this vast region, the EEOC has a grand total of 31 investigators: 16 in the Metropolitan area, five in Buffalo and 10 in Boston. The legal staff of 13 trial lawyers is based in New York City, but they are required to litigate cases in all parts of the region! Given the size of their jurisdiction, it is all too obvious that they are pitifully under staffed.
The fact that a single major construction company can hire a law firm with hundreds of lawyers, suggests that the civil rights of the protected class’ is not a high priority item for the Congressmen who appropriate the funds which enable the EEOC to carry out its mandate. Hence, when it comes to enforcing Title VII protections against racial discrimination in the construction racket, the EEOC’s efforts range between farce and tragedy – in spite of the dedication of the director and his overworked staff.
This lax enforcement policy, along with the continuing indifference of Mayor Giuliani and other elected officials to racism and sexism in the building trades, is the main reason why after all the struggles by black and Hispanic workers, male and female, discrimination persists and is still growing in unions like local 28. Scott Green, a black veteran of the Strategic Air Command who has been a member of local 28 for 32 years, knows first hand how hard it is to eradicate racist practices in construction unions.
“No matter what the courts do,” says Green, “the guys who run this union always find a way to get around putting you to work if you’re black. See, the court can order the union to admit more black members but they don’t monitor the situation to see if the business agent sends us out on jobs. I have had to stage sit-ins in the agent’s office in order to get work.” Green says he has resigned himself to being out of work several month’s a year.
I saw him a few days after Labor Day, and Green told me he had gone to the parade and met black workers in many different building trades “and they all said that racism in the industry is the worst they have ever seen. These white boys seem to feel like they can do anything they want!” I have heard similar comments followed by detailed horror stories from asbestos workers, iron workers, carpenters, wire latherers, plumbers et, al.
Many labor lawyers and federal attorneys concerned with enforcing Title VII, believe that the best way to solve this problem of enforced idleness of black workers is to change the law so that union officials can be held personally culpable when unions are found guilty of engaging in discriminatory practices. The idea here is that the mere possibility of personal liability will act as a deterrent. And preventing discrimination is obviously a more effective solution than litigation, because as EEOC Director Spencer Lewis points out “We’ve been in court for 21 years trying to settle the Local 28 case.” But, as attorney Millicent Clarke explains, “Changing the law is up to the politicians.”
The upshot of all this is that African Americans are locked out of any meaningful participation in the multi-billion dollar construction business, the only major American industry where workers without a high school diploma routinely make from fifty to one hundred thousand dollars a year. And the burden of proof falls squarely upon the shoulders of those who argue that this systematic exclusion can be remedied without an affirmative action program based on race and gender equity, with firm numerical goals and timetables.
The best evidence that the Republican ideologues who are the most vociferous opponents of affirmative action programs are not serious about solving the problem of racial and gender exclusion, is their disparagement of numerical goals and timetables, since most of them are businessmen who would never consider embarking on any venture without such quantitative measures of progress.
However, in spite of Ms. Clarke’s observation that the ultimate solution to the problem of Institutionalized racism in the Construction industry and elsewhere lies with the politicians who make the laws, Jim Haughton’s encounter with the black political establishment and his experience with politics has left him cynical about the usefulness of both.
“I don’t regret the political struggles we engaged in,” says Haughton, “but I know now that most politicians are bought and paid for so they ain’t gonna do shit! But I will not belittle or discourage anyone else from seeking solutions in politics; who knows what can happen. And anyway, it beats just sittin’ around on your ass complaining about all the things that are wrong.”
“I know one thing for sure, the last thing the black political leadership in this town is concerned with is the plight of struggling construction workers. They are too beholden to white philanthropy to take the kind militant stand the situation requires. Given the desperate condition of Harlem and other black communities in this city these people should be out organizing mass demonstrations. But what are they doing? Nothing! They’re all blow and no go!” Haughton views the endorsement of Giuliani by Congressmen Floyd Flake and Ed Towns as further evidence that the allegiance of black politicians is dictated by expedience.
A talk with Charles Rangel, the Congressman who represents Harlem, revealed that although he has brought “millions” of construction dollars into this city he is as much in the dark about what’s going down in the construction racket as most other New Yorkers. He too was puzzled by the fact that “When you look at these construction projects you don’t see blacks on the job,” and that contractors seem to prefer “green card people” to African Americans. Rangel did show an interest in the issue however. He even offered to personally present this article to John Conyers, the black Congressman from Detroit who is the ranking Democrat on the judicial committee, in the hope that it could serve as a catalyst for congressional hearings into the construction racket.
It is an event I would welcome, because perhaps they could compile the kind of data that would pave the way for the type of legislation civil rights lawyers say would make their job easier. Haughton was unimpressed. He is convinced that the only effective route to change lies in massive grass roots demonstrations and litigation in the courts.
He has already filed a suit against Local 46 of the Metallic Iron Workers, but Haughton has bigger fish to fry. He is scouting around for a law firm willing to handle a $50 billion suit against the entire New York construction industry, as well as the government agencies who should have monitored the behavior of contractors and insured that they followed the law.
Haughton negotiated with the Center for Constitutional Rights about taking the case, but while they believe the case has merit the Center does not have the resources to take on a case of this magnitude. This is the kind of class action suit the EEOC should be undertaking. But as we have shown, due to congress’s failure to adequately fund the agency they don’t have the resources to fight this case either. “This would be such an easy case to prove, we can supply all kinds of evidence and produce thousands of people who are willing to testify, says Haughton.”
As a result of sending workers on job sites all over the city, and working with small contractors trying to win city contracts, Fight Back has collected evidence on city agencies who have repeatedly employed contractors that violate the prevailing wage requirements of state laws and the federal Davis-Bacon Act, as well as civil rights laws prohibiting racial and sexual discrimination. Their list includes: Housing Preservation and Development, Port Authority, Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Department of highways. It is this kind of data, amassed over three decades, that Haughton is using as the basis for his suit.
The $50 billion figure is based on what Haughton’s economic analysis team estimates black New Yorkers have lost because they were denied an equal opportunity to participate in the building industry. And this includes all classes of Afro-Americans: workers, contractors, and architects. This could be a precedent setting case because the evidence demonstrates that race matters more than character or credentials in the construction industry, and that in its most fundamental sense the problem black Americans face is caste rather than class. This nullifies the increasingly popular thesis – vociferously argued by Koch, Guliani, Pete Wilson, et al – that affirmative action programs should be based on class rather than race.
Nothing demonstrates the caste over class thesis more clearly than the plight of black architects. The major shortcoming of the NYCHRC report is that it dose not address the plight of Afro-American professionals and entrepreneurs such as architects and contractors, who also suffer serious discrimination. Some of the most grievous stories we heard in the course of conducting interviews on the construction business came from highly trained black architects.
The tales they tell leave no doubt that race matters more than merit in the marketplace, but not in the way that critics of affirmative action would have us believe. (That being black affords one a special advantage) The architects had only cynical laughter for those who argue that race is a marginal consideration in today’s economy.
“Every time I hear the argument that America is a meritocracy I can barely contain my rage,” says writer/editor Jean Bond, as we stood engaging in a tête-à-tête in the ancient cobblestone courtyard of the Sorbonne in Paris. “Race has always been more important than competence or talent in America.” Having witnessed her father, a heart surgeon, her uncle, a graduate of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, and her son, who holds an undergraduate degree from Yale and a Masters in engineering from Pratt Institute, all struggle against racial discrimination in their professions, the lady knows what she’s talking about.
The most striking case however is that of her husband of over thirty years, the architect J. Max Bond – himself a member of a great American family which includes his cousin Julian Bond – whom she had accompanied to Paris for the annual convention of the American Society of Architects. One of the most brilliant Americans of his generation, Bond graduated from Harvard with an architecture degree at 19 years old!
He took a Masters in architecture from the Harvard school of design at 21. He then won a Fulbright fellowship to study at the Institute Des Beaux Arts in Paris – the Alma Mater of Richard Morris Hunt, designer of the famous Whitmore/Peabody mansion and the Vanderbilt Marble House in Newport, RI. After completing his studies, Bond worked with a large Parisian firm associated with the great French architect Le Courbousier, one of the fathers of modern architecture. Before returning home in 1960, he sent out resumes to all the major New York architecture firms seeking employment and they enthusiastically replied, each hoping they would be the one to bag this star catch. But that was before they discovered he was black!
The persistence of racial discrimination is a major theme in American history, thus amazingly similar experiences of rejection can be found in the life stories of Afro-Americans from one generation to another. Hence Dr. W.E.B. Dubois’s experience of earning a Harvard PhD, going on to complete the requirements for the even more prestigious Doctor of Economics at the University of Berlin, then returning to America in 1898 – “educated within an inch of my life”- only to be rejected from one job application to the next, foreshadows the experience of Max Bond three generations later.
“I had all of these interviews scheduled,” says Bond,” but when I showed up they would start apologizing and say ‘There must be some mistake because we’re not hiring.’ The standard line was ‘We don’t know how this happened because we don’t have any work right now.’ Some of them said they didn’t have any work because they were moving. Now, these were the biggest firms in the business, so I knew what they were telling me was nonsense. Plus I had the letters of appointment they sent me! It was obvious that it was the race thing because my credentials were excellent. I was young and optimistic, so the whole ordeal made me feel pretty terrible.”
Among the firms who suddenly got amnesia or ran out of work were: I. M. Pei – whose founder was a fellow Harvard man – Marcel Brauer (who is now defunct) Skidmore, Owens and Merril, et al. “Some of these firms did have a token black architect or two but they were never in design roles,” says bond, “they were confined to production work, drafting working drawings of white architect’s designs.
There is still a class system among architects in most companies: The production people who do the drawings from which buildings are built and the designers who create the art. And it breaks down along racial lines because very few blacks are considered the equal of whites as designers, so we don’t get the opportunities to design. With very few exceptions this is true no matter what our training or talent; we’re just not accepted in that league.”
After his ordeal with the leading firms Bond says “I begin to check out the smaller companies,” and he eventually landed a job with a firm who specialized in public projects. Although his race prevented him from working on a lot of choice projects which would have challenged his skill and imagination, Bond is quick to point out that he has had a rich and fulfilling career in spite of the institutionalized racism which continues to pervade his profession. He was a part of the brigade of Afro-American professionals who went off to West Africa in order to help the newly independent nation of Ghana survive. During his stay Bond designed some of the country’s public buildings and taught at the National Institute of Science and Technology.
For years he managed duel careers as a practicing architect and partner in the firm of Bond-Ryder, while serving as a tenured professor of Architecture at Columbia University, where he was Chairman of the department for four years. Bond left Columbia after sixteen years of service in order to become Dean of the School of Architecture at City College, because he would be able to help more minority students enter the profession. Now, in his sixties, Bond has forsaken academia for a partnership in a large firm: Davis, Body and Bond. Still, there is a deep sense of the absurd in his chuckle as he muses “I trained a lot of white architects who went out and got big commissions that were unavailable to me.”
J. Max Bond; Brilliant Architect and Columbia Professor. R- One Of Max’s Designs Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, AL.
James Strawder Jr. took his degree in architecture from Columbia University in 1972, at his father’s request. “I was getting a great education at Pratt Institute,” says Strawder, “when my father told me that he wanted me to take my degree from Columbia, because Columbia University owed our family a degree.”
The reason the elder Strawder felt a sense of entitlement is because he had been refused admission to the university thirty years earlier, when he was an army officer returning from the pacific with combat citations. He took the entrance exam, part of which was in Latin, and easily passed it. But he was informed by Columbia that they had their “quota of Negroes.” Hence he felt that his son must earn a Columbia degree as a matter of family honor.
During his sojourn at Columbia James Jr. studied with Max Bond, and his subsequent experience as an architect both reflect and differ from that of his teacher. There was, however, a qualitative difference in the conditions under which these two black architects launched their careers. When Strawder came out of college the 8-A program under the Nixon administration mandated affirmative action set-aside contracts on all construction projects that received federal funds.
Hence a few years out of Columbia, Strawder became a partner in the Lewis, Turner Partnership – an African American firm founded by Roger Lewis and Frank Turner – and they were working in an Association with I.M. Pei, as architects designing the massive JavitzCenter. Their participation in the project wasn’t window dressing either. “We were allowed to work up to the level of our company’s capacity,” says Strawder, “it was a good working relationship. We worked on all aspects of the design.”
But, with racial barriers added to the normal Darwinian world of the architectural contracting business, the partnership – which became LST Design Collaborative – failed to move beyond the public sector as their major source of revenue. At the peak of the firm’s activity in the late seventies LST’s billings never exceeded $800,000 a year. “If we had done comparable work in the private sector our billings would have increased by as much as 50%,” says Strawder. Due to philosophical differences about the direction the company should take, the partnership broke up in the early eighties and the partners went their separate ways.
Over the last seventeen years Strawder has concentrated on designing low cost housing. His innovative and humanistic approach to this field has resulted in the construction of excellent affordable housing for hundreds of families in this city. His work has been featured in the New York Times and received many accolades, including a Congressional Award for Community Service from the office of Congressman Ed. Towns, and the 1997 National Builders Association’s prize for the best designed low cost housing. In spite of his excellent record however, Strawder is still finding it hard to get substantial work in the private sector, and says that’s the case with most black architects he knows.
Hal Dorfman, President of the New York Society of Architects, estimates that 7% or 8% of all monies spent on construction in any given year goes to architectural services. That could range from $160 million to over $200 million a year. But Dorfman had no idea what percentage of those fees go to black architects because they keep no records on such matters. When I asked him about the number of blacks and females in the 400-member organization, he responded as if it was an impertinent question. First he said the question was “irrelevant,” then he told me: “As an organization we don’t keep statistics; if you’re an architect you’re an architect. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman or otherwise; if you pay your dues and don’t have any felonies against you then you can be a member.” The most obvious thing about all of this newfound color blindness in record keeping is that it does nothing to eradicate racial discrimination, but only hides it.
According to the black architects I interviewed, the main reason why they continue to seek work in the public sector is that, given the highly segregated social worlds of whites and blacks in New York, African Americans are not even allowed in many of the venues where important private business contacts are made. “No matter how educated and successful any of us may become,” says Strawder, “we can’t gain entry into the exclusive clubs where the big deals are done because their memberships are restricted to whites only.”
It was in recognition of the advantages that country club membership provided his white colleagues, in terms of being able to attract the kinds of clients which leads to partnerships in his law firm, that motivated Lawrence Otis Graham, a black Princeton trained corporate lawyer, to work as a busboy in a Greenwich Connecticut Country Club in order to see what goes down in these precincts of white power and privilege. His report on the experience was published as a cover story in New York Magazine, and the kind of racist talk which he reports was common fare among the membership – who are a part of the nations power elite – is worthy of the White Citizens Councils of the deep south thirty years ago. Except that these are some of the same people who run big business firms in black, brown and beige New York City!
Odd Man Out: Black Contractors
Afro-American contractors are doubly disadvantaged by the lack of access to the social circles where deals are cut; banishment from the country club scene is only part of their problem. For example, as Sammy Gravano became a power in the construction racket, the princes and powers of the industry assembled at Tali’s – a nightclub he owned in Bensonhurst Brooklyn – every Tuesday night to network and pay their respects to “The Bull.”
Peter Maas, who co-authored Underboss, tells us about “concrete company executives, building contractors and subcontractors, shop stewards in the construction unions and the Teamsters all flocking to eat and drink, to touch base with Sammy.” Skeptical readers may wish to dismiss Maas’ claims as hyperbole, except that Frank Spero and Matty Tricorico, the two FBI agents on the Gambino Task Force who conducted surveillance on Gravano, verify it.
These are all the elements needed to control a significant percentage of the construction projects in New York City. The fact that foreign born contractors were welcome at these Bensonhurst confabs, while native born black Americans were not – we need only recall the fates of transit worker Willie Turks and prospective car buyer Yusef Hawkins, two black men who were killed for just being in that neighborhood – reminds us of who has always received racial preference in this country: white people, male or female, native or foreign born.
The importance of these connections to sub-contractors becomes obvious as Gravano describes in detail how the mob determines which companies are awarded subcontracts on big construction jobs around this city. He tells us that if a general contractor refuses to accept their “recommendation,” of a subcontractor they have ways of persuading them by creating labor and transportation problems which will make it impossible to complete their projects on time.
Since this could cost the contractor both his good name and millions of dollars, they generally go along with the Mafia’s program. I had been told by project managers for major contractors how the mob can influence the pace of a construction project through their control of concrete, carting and trucking, but Gravano’s detailed squealings fill in the blanks by putting La Costra Nostra’s business in the streets.
When I interviewed former Mayor Ed Koch last August, in his elegantly appointed law offices high above the streets of mid-Manhattan, he showed not the slightest hint of irony as he sat in a bastion of white male power and privilege vociferously denouncing affirmative action programs which privilege non-whites and white women. Koch’s answer to discrimination in the awarding of city contracts was the Locally Based Enterprise program, which was introduced during his administration. LBE’s are small firms based in New York, who do business in poor neighborhoods and employ people from that neighborhood. Koch’s pride in the scheme was demonstrated in everything from his pompous body language to the hyperbolic claims he made on its behalf.
The LBE program sounds good in theory, but the case of the LAQUILLA Construction Company’s dealings with the Health and Hospitals Corporation tell quite a different story. On April 7, Edward J. Kuriansky, the Commissioner of the Department of Investigations, and Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morganthau, announced that Angelo Sisca, LAQUILA’s operations manager, had pleaded guilty to filing false documents with the city, and Anthony Albicocco, a former vice president with LAQUILLA, “was arrested in connection with the same scheme.” The “scheme” to which the statement refers involves a $2,495,000 contract awarded to LAQUILLA by HHC to construct concrete decks as part of a $50, 000, 000 renovation project at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.
The terms of the contract limited the use of subcontractors to 25% of the job, and required them to award the first 10% of sub work to a LBE. But LIQUILLA, a general contractor who has $135 million in contracts with the New York City Transit Authority alone, subcontracted out 90% of the work to J. Luchese & Son, a white male “non-LBE” contractor for $1,395,000, which guaranteed over a million dollars in profits for LAQUILLA. More often than not, this is the real deal that’s going down with the Locally Based Enterprise clauses in city construction contracts. And the Guliani Administration’s decision not to keep records on the race and gender of city contractors is an invitation to fraud. Evading LBE requirements will be a piece of cake for streetwise general contractors, who can simply set up other white guys as shills.
Racial Exclusion and Affirmative Action Viewed in Broader Perspective
On August 28, the day that Proposition 209 became law, ending all government sponsored race and gender based affirmative action programs in California, Dr. Michael Rappaport, Dean of the UCLA Law School, appeared on ABC’s Nightline and addressed the questions raised by 209 supporters. He began by pointing out that students admitted under affirmative action guidelines pass the California Bar at the same rate as students admitted under regular criteria. Then he demonstrated that admitting students on the basis of economic status will not bring about racial diversity in the University of California because “There are far more poor whites than poor blacks or Hispanics.” Herein lies the flaw in Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch’s arguments; they amount to a formula for maintaining the status quo.
If the standard for participation in affirmative action programs becomes economic status it will simply mean that poor whites will get everything- just like it’s always been – especially if immigrants are allowed to participate in these programs. This is already happening in the construction business and it will escalate. From its inception affirmative action programs were distinguished from poverty programs by a compensatory element based on the long history of government sanctioned exploitation and oppression of African Americans. To now turn them into mere poverty programs would be a burlesque on the original intent.
Apart from the whining of “angry white males” who wish to blame their genuine failures on “reverse discrimination,” what is most galling to African Americans who have suffered real discrimination all their lives, plus witnessed the racial ordeals suffered by their parents and grandparents, are those whites who claim to oppose affirmative action because it is bad for us. When Ed Koch made that argument during our interview, I thought of the old Ibo proverb: “Beware of the stranger who comes to the funeral and cries louder than the bereaved!”
Ideally, some affirmative action programs should hire people who are unqualified and train them for the job, as is called for on construction projects in public housing, and other affirmative action programs should help highly trained black professionals like James Strawder and Max Bond, or millionaire businessmen like Quincy Jones, gain access to markets previously closed – and Presently beyond their grasp – because of the color of their skins.
Thurgood Marshall and Co-Counsels at Supreme Court. After winning Landmark Brown Decision 1954. He defended Affirmative Action as a Just Remedy.
As for those who argue that race based Affirmative Action programs are unconstitutional, I refer them to the opinion of the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the greatest civil rights lawyer of the twentieth century. Writing in the case of the Regents of the University of California V. Bake, Marshall said, “For it must be remembered that, during most of the past 200 years, the Constitution as interpreted by this Court did not prohibit the most ingenious and pervasive forms of discrimination against the Negro.
Now, when a state acts to remedy the effects of that legacy of discrimination, I cannot believe that this same constitution stands as a barrier.” Having argued 32 cases against institutionalized white supremacy before the Supreme Court and won 29, more than any other lawyer, Marshall was singularly qualified to address the question of compensatory policies. Which Affirmative Action, from its inception, was intended to be.
On the other hand, the arguments of those whites that oppose race based affirmative action programs rarely rise above sophistry or subterfuge. Most of them love to cite Shelby Steele, Clarence Thomas, Walter Williams, Wardell Connerly and Thomas Sowell as evidence that blacks also oppose affirmative action. The fact that most of these have benefited from affirmative action, or that their views are about as popular in the black community as the opinions of Jews who think Israel should be returned to the Palestinians are in the Jewish community, is routinely ignored.
That’s because the main reason why whites usually refer to these guys is to demonstrate that one need not be a racist to oppose affirmative action. But whether these opponents are motivated by racism, or a sincere but misguided notion of racial justice, is irrelevant. At the end of the day it remains a distinction without a difference, because the result will be the same: African Americans will remain the odd man out.
Uncle Justice Thomas
The 90,000 discrimination complaints presently before the EEOC nationally – only 3,000 of which are whites claiming “reverse discrimination – demonstrates that the problem of racial exclusion goes far beyond the construction business. Aside from their pervasiveness, what is most alarming about these racist episodes is their diversity. On Wall Street, the financial capital of the world, discrimination is so widespread that Jesse Jackson’s Operation Push has set up a special office to police the area.
Harold Doley, the first African American to purchase an individual seat on the New York stock Exchange in 1974, thinks it is an idea whose time has come. Before Jackson’s arrival on the street, suits had already been filed against the investment banking firms of Dun & Bradstreet and Smith Barney. And black employees are suing Morgan Stanley, alleging that a racially hostile environment is responsible for the company being “almost 98% white.” They have publicly claimed that E-mail exchanged between their white colleagues read like messages from Ku Klux Klan klaverns.
The Disney company is being hit by an anti-discrimination suit brought by Afro-American employees and, even as I write, sixty Minutes is airing an expose on the Avis car rental franchises owned by John Dalton, in North and South Carolina, who ordered his employees not to rent cars to any black customer no matter how good their credit. Several Avis employees at headquarters in Tulsa Oklahoma said that top management was told of this situation as far back as the late 1980’s, but they did nothing to correct it.
Blacks in rural America, who have remained in the farming sector as family farmers, are also struggling against institutional racism in the Agricultural Department, which is forcing them out of business at three times the rate of white farmers. This fact was well documented in an in-depth report by CBS television’s morning news of 7/17/97, which included extensive interviews with black farmers, coverage of their demonstration in front of the White House, and examined a recent report which supports the farmers claims of systematic racial discrimination in granting the operating loans all small farmers need to survive. A contrite Secretary of Agriculture appeared on the program and pledged that the Agriculture Department will sin no more.
The facts put forth here represent only the tip of a mountain of data supporting the claim that racist practices against African Americans are flourishing in every sector of the economy. Added to this alarming scenario is the fact that a recent analysis of the FBI’s data base by the distinguished investigative reporter David Burnham, published in the August 11-18 edition of The Nation, revealed that of 12,000 civil rights complaints filed with the FBI, the agency secured only 60 convictions.
Although the fact that the FBI itself recently lost a racial discrimination case brought by black agents must be figured into the equation, the main reason for such a paltry conviction rate by “the greatest investigative agency in the world” is that the standard of evidence set by the supreme court in recent decisions make it increasingly difficult for the injured parties to prove discrimination in a court of law, especially where employers do not keep thorough records on the race and gender identities of their work force. That’s why most thoughtful black Americans – this writer included – suspect that the “color blindness” which has become the credo of born again racial egalitarians will simply render them invisible, while failing to bring about racial equality.
Whites who are charged with the responsibility of enforcing anti-discrimination laws easily recognize the fundamental logic of this suspicion. “You have people who stand up in front of the press and talk about how they are firm believers in equal employment opportunity,” says David Raff, “but they are destroying the institutional and factual underpinnings we need to bring that about… Discrimination is much more sophisticated today than it used to be. It requires a much greater ability to analyze records and documents in order to prove the case in court.” Hence the African American fear that so-called “color blindness” disguises white racism and promotes the status quo is justified.
Yet, even so, every now and then a company is caught with a smoking gun and we are provided a glimpse of the racist practices that are so ubiquitous in corporate America. For example, due to the cooperation of Bruce Lundvall – a renegade white executive angered by the news that he was being downsized – the evidence of racial discrimination at Texaco, presented in the legal suit brought by Afro-American employees, was so compelling that it resulted in a $176 million settlement and obstruction of justice indictments against several top executives.
And on August 7, the courts also awarded the plaintiff’s attorneys $19,000,000 in fees – a hefty tab which Texaco was ordered to pay. The prohibitive costs associated with this case is instructive, because it tells us that the legal option is beyond the grasp of most Afro-Americans who are victims of discrimination in major corporations, a list that is growing in spite of the swelling chorus of denials from white Americans.
In her thoughtful essay, “Ideology and Race in American History,” Columbia University history professor, Barbara Fields, offers an explanation for the disparate views of white and black Americans: “An understanding of how groups of people see other groups in relation to themselves must begin by analyzing the pattern of their social relations…” That’s why the vast majority of black Americans simply don’t believe that most white Americans will do the right thing unless required to do so by strictly enforced laws. They have over 300 years of solid evidence upon which to base that skepticism.
It is a matter of historical record that from 1619 to the Omnibus Civil rights bill of 1964, the law had always been employed to arrest or retard the advancement of African Americans. The lone exception is the decade between 1866 and 1876, the post-Civil War period known as “Radical Reconstruction.” And what is most frightening to those of us who have studied the details of that period is that it shares so many striking similarities with the present.
The Reconstruction was an attempt to re-order American society after four years of the most destructive warfare the world had yet seen tore this nation apart. The issue then, as it is now, was what to do with millions of African Americans who were no longer slaves but were prevented from reaching social, political and economic equality with whites by the laws and customs formed over several centuries of white supremacist government. In the period from 1866 to 1875, the Congress attempted to remedy this situation by extending full citizenship to black Americans through the passage of seven civil rights bills and adding the the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the constitution.
But the elections of 1876 brought white reactionaries to power and the great reversal of fortune began. The greatest defeats came at the hands of the Supreme Court, which issued a series of devastating decisions culminating in the Plessy Vs. Ferguson case of 1896, the infamous “Separate But Equal” ruling, which established a legal caste system locking African Americans at the bottom of American society for the next 68 years. The analogy between the events of the mid-19th century and the great Civil Rights revolution of the 20th century, as well as the white backlash which is still unfolding, are all too obvious.
Contrary to the increasingly popular belief that race based affirmative action programs are creating antagonisms between white and black Americans, the real problem is the failure to adequately address the unresolved and combustible issues of racial exploitation and inheritance, which, like Banquo’s ghost, continue to reappear and threaten the domestic tranquility. It is those who argue against affirmative action that are creating support for a much more divisive issue: the growing movement for reparations. This remedy is being introduced on the floor of Congress in a bill sponsored by John Conyers, even as I write.
Reparations as a remedy for racial inequity is rapidly gaining support from mainstream African American organizations, including the NAACP, the oldest and most influential, because most multi-generational black Americans believe that the Civil Rights bill and less than thirty years of halfhearted affirmative action programs, from which some others have benefited more, are inadequate compensation for centuries of official transgressions against them and their ancestors.
To these swelling ranks of black Americans – most of whom are, according to the Urban League, a couple of paychecks from poverty – whites who argue against race based affirmative action increasingly resemble the gambler who is caught cheating after he has bankrupted every body else in the game, who were forced to play by his rules in the first place, but when the gambler is exposed in the act and finally confesses his crimes, instead of making restitution to the people he has robbed, the cheater promises “I’ll play fair from now on!”
Looking candidly at the situation in the construction racket, and pondering how it reflects the situation in other industries, I am reminded of the opening lines from Dr. Dubois’ timeless classic, “The Souls of Black Folk.” This elegant collection of erudite essays on Afro-American life was published in the third year of the twentieth century. It was a time when segregation was the law, lynching was in fashion, and America was going through her industrial revolution.
Now, three years til the end of the century, de-jure segregation is gone, lynching is out of style – although many will argue that it has been replaced by police brutality – and America is a post industrial society undergoing a technological revolution which poses a different set of economic problems and political prospects in an evolving global economy.
Yet, except for the italicized words, Dr. DuBois’ statement is quoted precisely because for the majority of African Americans – blue collar, white collar and professional – the meaning of being black in America today, 94 years after the publication of “Souls”, has not fundamentally changed to the degree where Dubois’ warning is no longer relevant: “Herein lies buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black at the end of the Twentieth Century. This meaning is not without interest to you gentle reader; for the problem of the Twenty First Century is the problem of the color line.”
Benjamin is a veteran political journalist out of Harlem NY. His essays can be read on his blog site Commentaries on the Times.