A Fayetteville Observer article by Paul Woolverton headlined “Wright critical of stadium worker numbers” troubled me. It reported, “Councilman Larry Wright is disappointed at the number of black construction workers who are building the city’s $37.8 million baseball stadium downtown.”
That article went on to report that, in a presentation to Fayetteville City Council, a Barton Malow Company (the stadium contractor) representative indicated that 19 of the 123 construction workers were black, while there were 54 Hispanics, 43 whites, four American Indians and three described as other.
Further, the article said the following.
“Wright said he’s supportive of Hispanic workers and female workers, but he disliked the figure of just 19 black workers. ‘It just seemed to me that that number could go higher,’ he said.
Deputy City Manager Kristoff Bauer said the project is following a program to subcontract jobs to minority-owned and woman-owned businesses, but that does not extend to who those businesses hire. It’s illegal for the companies to hire individual workers based on their race, Bauer and City Councilman Jim Arp told Wright.
‘You can’t track who gets hired – so then what good is it?’ Wright said.”
Looking at what shows above and the remainder of the article, I was troubled by the messaging. It seems to be one of total focus on black Fayetteville citizens to the exclusion of all others. In my estimation, no matter how well-intended, the consequence of that messaging, in all likelihood, will be a bad outcome.
In my effort to always deal fairly with people, and because of prior very positive interactions with Councilman Wright, I called him to discuss my concerns and thoughts regarding this matter. I first met him in late 2006, or early 2007, when Great Oak Youth Development Center, where I was a volunteer, purchased and occupied a house next to his church. Over some eight years of my tenure with that organization, Bishop Wright went above and beyond as a supporter of our efforts to help young black males build a foundation for successful lives.
He and I talked by phone for over an hour. It was, from my viewpoint, an honest, thoughtful and civil conversation. What follows reflects my concerns, my thinking, regarding some of the negative consequences that would likely flow from what I perceive as messaging that implies a total focus on the well-being of a single group to the exclusion, and maybe at the expense, of others.
Sadly, this messaging makes Councilman Wright appear to only be concerned about black citizens. In our conversation, his words reflected concern for all citizens and a desire to work across all the lines that divide us. Let me be clear, what I share here is not intended as some attack on, nor condemnation of, Councilman Wright. My giving thought to and addressing this matter was simply prompted by the position he took in response to the stadium employment numbers.
A consideration to start with would be to define the problem and then look to the causes. Accept the problem as low employment of blacks on the stadium project. The question then becomes what is being done about determining causes? What troubles me is that in too many circles of influence and authority, the automatic response is racism. Is it possible that there is a qualification factor at play? That is, to what extent does Fayetteville have a pool of black individuals qualified to fill the jobs in question?
It would make sense to explore that question. This could be done by having the stadium contractor provide a list of needed skills for the project. Concerned groups, independent of city involvement, could then undertake an effort to identify every black person in Fayetteville who possesses one or more of the required skills. Assuming that process produces qualified persons who then apply for jobs, and do any required follow-through, but are not hired, the racial component could more reasonably be considered. Until that kind of step is taken, the rush to claims of racism should be shelved.
The other consideration that challenges race as a reason for the low number of blacks on this project is that 44 percent of the reported employees are Hispanic. From Britannica.com, “‘Hispanic’ is generally accepted as a narrower term that includes people only from Spanish-speaking Latin America, including those countries/territories of the Caribbean or from Spain itself.” Hispanic is not a race, but if the focus is, as normally presented, to favor White Americans of European descent, this high percentage of Hispanics brings the racism argument into question.
This profound focus, at a governmental level, on hiring black Americans has the feel of discrimination against other groups. Even further, it smells of identity politics – that is, intentionally appealing to certain groups based on issues with which those groups identify. In our time, the aim of this approach is to build coalitions that win elections and marshal power while marginalizing other groups. In the case of the stadium employment situation, the appeal would be to black voters.
Even if this focus on employing blacks is based on good intentions, where does this approach take us? I contend that it unnecessarily feeds racial tension that is destroying our nation at every level, encourages a dangerous attitude of entitlement and victimhood among black citizens and contributes to some citizens of the city moving, or sincerely desiring to move, elsewhere.
In all of this, the great challenge is to find a course of action that has promise and is fair to all citizens. Such an approach is being pursued by Barton Malow Company, the stadium contractor. In partnership with Cumberland County NCWorks Career Center and Fayetteville Technical Community College, the contractor is conducting a boot camp program to recruit and train stadium construction workers.
Dannis Mitchell, diversity manager for Barton Malow, explained the boot camp program to me in a phone conversation and by email. It is an eight-week program where a participant receives two weeks of classroom training during which they learn about industry basics, including math, hand and power tool use, project coordination and the development process. Participants then work with on-site stadium subcontractors for six weeks. The program is administered in three cohorts to include training in concrete, masonry, steel, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, roofing, glass/glazing and drywall.
Participants are compensated during seven weeks of the eight-week program. At the end of the eight-week period, subcontractors prepare evaluations on participants and participants evaluate their experience. Subcontractors are strongly encouraged to hire, to work beyond the eight-week program and even after the stadium is complete, those boot camp participants who have met their corporate hiring requirements and demonstrated a positive work ethic coupled with commitment.
Mitchell stated that foundational to their diversity effort is offering opportunity for individuals to qualify for employment in the construction industry. It is not about quotas. I see this approach as fair to all. There are 12 individuals in the first cohort of the boot camp. There will be three boot camp cohorts over the course of the project to reach the goal of placing 30 residents in the program. Cohort 2 will begin in August for mechanical, electrical and plumbing, while Cohort 3 also begins in August for roofing, glass/glazing and drywall.
The contractor publicized this program through the media and at gathering places such as churches and recreation centers. The effort to spread the word regarding this opportunity includes distribution of a flyer that is thorough in presenting details of the boot camp but is also inviting and hope-inspiring.
Those of us who seek to do good for society must be careful that our words and actions do not allow for messaging that produces a bad outcome. A key to avoiding this messaging pitfall is to honestly assess problems and seek solutions that are, and appear, fair to all.
Thank you, Barton Malow Company, for modeling this approach.
Photo: Fayetteville City Councilman Larry Wright