See our Photo of the Week (and archive of more)

Opinion Advertize Permission
To be notified of new articles Survey Store About Us
Can You Dig It?

Affirmative Action and African Americans
in the Construction Industry

Paul King
Chicago, Illinois

Paul King, chairman UBM, Inc.,Paul King is chairman and an original founder of UBM, Inc., the largest African American-owned and operated construction service firm in the city of Chicago. This article was delivered as a speech to National Association for Minority Contractors 29th Annual Conference: Gateway to the 21st Century opening session, June25, 1998.

On July 23, 1969, I was one of the leaders who shut down Chicago construction sites because of the absence of black workers and contractors in HUD-financed building projects. Hundreds of demonstrators were inspired by Presidential Executive Order 11246, which required contractors on federally assisted construction projects to not only cease discriminating against blacks, but take "affirmative action" to increase African American participation. Although employment, university admissions, and political districting rank high in the debate over affirmative action I would like to draw attention to the very distinct area in which I participated at the outset: Blacks in the Construction Industry.

My argument will take the form of the question: "Can you dig it?," or, DIG, an acronym for Deception; Ignorance; and Greed.


There is no question that Blacks have been discriminated against by unions and trade schools with respect to construction careers. Thirty years ago, blacks were 0.6 percent of the electrical unions, 1.6 percent of carpentry, and 0.2 percent in the sheet metal trade. These closed doors, combined with the restrictive practices of banks and performance bond companies, effectively prevented black contractors from developing successful enterprises. Affirmative action was intended to remedy racial exclusion and foster inclusion through the concept of correction and expanded opportunity, or (CEO).

Yet when the media, one of the chief agents of deception, discusses affirmative action, they substitute the word "quota" despite the fact that everyone knows that quotas are illegal unless imposed by court order. Quotas close doors and set limits. While affirmative action opens doors by expanding opportunities. Nevertheless, the print media continues to, purposefully I think, misapply the term.

Another deceptive device is the provocative use of the phrase "racial preferences," which suggests that one group (blacks) are unreasonably "promoted" over a more qualified group (whites) Affirmative action is not about preference, but the correction of past discrimination, such as increasing the 0.4 percent black elevator tradesmen in 1967 to a number visible on the radar screen!

Sociologist Michael Dyson states that the ingenuity of the conservatives and the far right is that they have deceitfully co-opted the rhetoric of the progressive and civil rights movements against the very principles of freedom, equality, and justice that the language originally stood for. Pollster Lou Harris essentially agreed, stating that "it is not only misleading, but deceitful to use 'affirmative action' and 'preferential treatment' interchangeably "

But the ultimate trick came with Proposition 209, audaciously known as, "the California Civil Rights Initiative," which banned the use of race or sex as a criterion for "either discrimination against or granting preferential treatment to" anyone doing business with the state. Prop 209 spokesperson, Ward Connerly, is as duplicitous as the language -- having once served as a paid lobbyist for the construction and roofing industry -- the same group that provided a vocal rear guard in recent Supreme Court affirmative action cases.

When the Harris Poll surveyed Californians, 81 percent supported the referendum. But when asked if they would still support the measure if it would "outlaw all affirmative action programs for women and minorities"-- that support fizzled to 29 percent, and opposition climbed from 11 percent to 58 percent. Simply put when the voters understand these mean-spirited ideas, they reject them. The citizens of Houston did not buy this verbal sleight of hand either, and refused to accept a similar initiative, when worded properly, even though they’re Southerners, and like California, in a highly populated state.


What role does ignorance play in this equation? Most people do not understand the facts of black exclusion in construction.

Generally, the avenue to becoming a skilled craftsman is to be sponsored by a contractor, complete a recognized training program, perform on-the-job training, be admitted into a union as a journeyman, and then selected (highly subjective) to work by a contractor. Becoming a contractor, requires knowledge of a trade, and/or architectural/engineering training, or college business preparation. Prior to affirmative action. Each of these doors had been slammed in the faces of blacks with the only open avenues being along the dead-end streets of unemployment and economic exclusion. If blacks are not exposed through education and are ignored by employment trainers, then you don't develop skilled black construction workers, and by extension- no black contractors. In 1998, there is still a paucity of African Americans in civil engineering curricula at the top schools -- the University of Illinois at Urbana and IIT had only three graduates, and MIT, one.

Let's examine the consequences by looking at three of the Chicago areas largest construction firms:

  1. The Walsh Group, founded in 1898 by a carpenter, with great-grandchildren still involved with the firm had a sales volume of almost $1 billion last year.
  2. Pepper Construction, founded in 1927 by a carpenter, three generations old, $473 million.
  3. Kenny Construction Co, founded in 1927 by a pipe-fitter, multi-generational, $469 million.
  4. Power Contracting and Engineering, founded in 1926 by an engineer, $320 million.
  5. Bulley and Andrews, founded in 1891 by an architect and mason, $65 million.

These major firms were founded in the 1890s and mid-1920s. Historians have called the former decade the worst on record in American race relations -from disfranchisement (taxation without representation), convict labor camps, to lynchings and segregation a la Plessy v. Ferguson (1893). Meanwhile, a generation later, in 1927, the new black migrants of the Great Migration, could not even enter, let alone work in the major downtown department stores in the de facto segregated cities of the North, like Chicago, where some local white contractors got their start.

Can there be any honest comparison of black contractors and these firms? If each of these successful firms got their start through trade experience, architecture or engineering, and these fields have only been significantly open to blacks for less than 27 years, should not corrected and expanded opportunity (CEO = affirmative action) be extended until some form of parity is reached?

A huge advantage exists for a firm that is second generation, to say nothing of three generations or more -- the assembly of resources and business relationships (banks, sureties, clients) give companies enjoying these benefits an inherent and inherited advantage over newly emerging black contractors. The $7 billion volume of the top three construction firms in Chicago is more than double the total revenues ($2.65 billion) of all African American construction firms in the entire United States.


This leads me to the final component of the DIG paradigm -- GREED). Why have the opponents been so relentless? In 1970, the Associated General Contractors (AGC) and many unions said that buildings built by blacks would fall dawn. It is no accident that the biggest Supreme Court affirmative action cases, Webber, Fullilove, Croson, and Adarand, have centered around construction, and in each instance, the majority contractor organizations have opposed progress. But whereas the earlier cases, Weber (1979) and Fullilove (1980), upheld affirmative action programs in hiring and promotions and supported minority contractor set-asides in order to correct gross past discrimination and achieve equity in the workplace, Croson(1983) and Adarand (1995)'s imposition of the "strict scrutiny' standard essentially ignored clear patterns of egregious discrimination and Inequity in the letting of public contracts.

But I will assume that these contractors are not all racists. The facts neither support the assertion that blacks have taken union jobs from white workers, nor that black contractors have deprived AGC members of a significant part of their business, which leads me to conclude that their continued assault is based on GREED.

Consider the volume of the top 25 contractors in Chicago, (none of whom are black), which for 1996, was $12.7 billion. All of the black contractors in the U.S. (UBM included) don’t amount to one quarter (21 percent) of Chicago’s top 25 construction companies. What do the affirmative action opponents want -- 100 percent of the work? The argument of reverse discrimination is patently false, whether advanced by unions or contractors.

Look at the case of the California electrical contractor who was upset because his firm lost a bid on a public contract because he did not meet minority business requirements. He wanted to perform all of the work himself. Let's examine the background to this situation.

In 1970, there were practically no blacks in the electrical union (thus no black electrical firms in his specialty). So how does this guy expect the cycle of exclusion to be broken? If 28 years ago, there were virtually no blacks in the electrical unions, and today it’s "immoral" to use a benign device like Affirmative Action to provide for some measure of inclusion, this guy seems to be saying that blacks should never be involved in electrical contracting. He doesn’t want the cycle to be broken because he doesn’t want to lose his power and privilege.

He goes on to argue that he never owned slaves and never discriminated against anyone, so why should he be burdened by minority business requirements? The answer lies in the simple fact that current generations pay for and benefit from actions/events that occurred during previous eras. All taxpayers are paying for the current budget deficit, though it isn't all of our own making. This guy doesn’t complain about surety bonds; even though he may have never defaulted on paying or performing a job; or about expensive safety requirements, which are the result of accidents and fatalities caused by others; or union wages, which occurred as a result of worker abuse by others; or about ADA costs in building, even though he probably never caused anyone to become physically challenged or disabled.

Thus the greed is not all about money because blacks do not have a serious impact in the industry. It is not all about principle because concessions to public policy are a continued cost of doing business.

This greed, though in part racially motivated, is about power. If a strong group of black contractors emerged across all trades with significant resource development extending across generations, there could be a change in who was elected to union local leadership; a change in the power equation when decisions about who will develop and own the land when public housing is demolished; who sits on public building commissions, Fair and Exposition authorities; who controls airport and transportation budgets -- maybe even who sits in the Governor’s mansion. It would change the complexion of those who make and interpret laws (the Clarence Thomases vigorously excepted). Affirmative action might possibly lead to a power shift and I certainly do dig that.

In the wake of anti affirmative action spin-meisters and mistresses who continually engage In fictitious deceit, qua Abigail Thernstrom, and Linda Chavez, Ward Connerly and Clarence Thomas, we do have some sanity emerging. Faced with the clear evidence of the elimination of black students at major California campuses, a long time opponent of affirmative action has modified his position. Nathan Glazer, author of Affirmative Discrimination, stated in the March issue of Commentary that; "We do need black members of police departments if we are to police black areas effectively. ... Similarly, we...need black teachers and administrators in our schools."

Regarding higher education, Glazer was even more emphatic:

To my mind, there is good argument for maintaining this racial preference because the presence of blacks does change and on the whole benefit the education of all. But my principal reason is that our colleges and universities, and professional schools are the central gateways to positions of power, wealth, and influence, and applying strict autocratic principles would lead to a catastrophic drop in the number of black students ill those crucial institutions. That would send a terrible message to blacks, and would be bad for the country.

Ironically, even while the major contractor associations are fighting affirmative action, white contractors are privately saying they don't have enough workers; and developers are complaining because they don't have enough competition on their invited bid lists. They realize that it is unlikely that the future skilled labor supply will be sufficient without African American participation. To fight the remedy for this problem is either racist or stupid, or are they both the same?

About the author: Paul King is one of the original founders of UBM, the largest African American-owned and operated construction services firms in the City of Chicago. For two years running, Black Enterprise Magazine ranked UBM the No. 1 African American construction services company in Chicago.

Paul King is a leader in the business and construction industry. Mr. King serves on the Board of Directors of Hales Franciscan High School. He is a much sought after lecturer and speaker and does so regularly for Chicago Public Schools, the De La Salle Institute, Roosevelt University, DePaul University, conventions, builder groups and various civic and community organizations

Mr. King is the author of numerous articles that have been published in books, book reviews, trade newspapers and magazines. As recently as February 1994 Paul King was profiled in a full-page editorial in N'Digo Magapaper. The feature-length article was titled "Putting 'Firm” in Affirmative Action.”.

Paul King is a former vice president of the National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC). He has also been a close advisor to Congressman Parren Mitchell (Democrat-MD). This work led to the formation of a Black Business Braintrust responsible for the first legislation regarding mandatory percentage goals when utilizing minority contractors on federal contracts. He has been instrumental in securing government funding for minority contractor assistance programs in Chicago and nationally.

He is the Chairman of the Chicago Business Council. Chairman and Founder of the O’Hare Development Group, (a Black development concern, presently developing a 41-acre site at O'Hare Airport.)

Paul King is especially concerned about the well being of African American young people. Each year he gets involved in the training of college students enrolled in UBM's Summer Intern Program, created to help African American college students get started in professional construction careers.

Paul King attended the De La Salle Institute, the University of Chicago and Roosevelt University.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 6, 1999.