Black and brown

Powers and Sons Construction is one of the largest black-owned construction firms in the United States. The firm was established in Gary, Indiana, in 1967 and has offices in Indianapolis and Chicago. The environment where the firm operates is a mix of racial demographics.

Lake County, Indiana, often referred to as Northwest Indiana by the locals, seems more like an extension of Chicago’s south suburbs than part of Indiana. The county is a collection of 19 municipalities where 493,297 residents live. Acccording to a 2004 report by the Census Bureau, the racial makeup of Lake County was 71 percent white, 26 percent black and 13 percent Hispanic.

The majority of blacks in the county reside in Gary, the largest city in the county and a place where the steel industry was once king. At 84 percent, blacks are the largest community in the city. Lake County’s Hispanic community is centered in East Chicago, Indiana, where they are 51 percent of the municipal population. Unemployment for the population aged 25 or older in both East Chicago and Gary was almost 15 percent in 2005. This combination of racial diversity and lack of opportunity has at times led to tension. Because of this tension, the firm walks a fine line with its work force.

“We really target African-Americans quite honestly,” says Mamon Powers Jr., president of Powers and Sons. “Because there is such a disparity in the construction industry, we make it our practice to give as many African-Americans as we can the opportunity to get into the construction industry. When we work in the African-American community, it is expected that we have a work force that represents it.”

Powers and Sons’ approach is partly a result of the increased complexity of racial relationships in American society. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the makeup of the United States’ top three racial groups is 68 percent Caucasian, 14 percent Hispanic and 12 percent black.

The conflict
Hispanics comprise a huge portion of the construction industry’s labor force. According to a Pew Hispanic Center report, almost 27 percent of the 11.2 million construction workers in the United States are Hispanic. In contrast, black workers make up just 7 percent of the total construction work force.

The issues for both blacks and Hispanics are similar on the surface. Both groups struggle to find equal footing with the Anglo majority while dealing with a series of social problems within their respective communities. There are some differences though. Blacks were brought to the United States as slave labor. The large segment of the Hispanic population arrived recently, looking for better opportunities than their home countries offered, and have had to deal with a language and culture gap.

A 2005 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center titled “The Rift” highlighted this growing conflict between blacks and Hispanics.

“The idea from the black point of view is that brown people leapfrog over them on the economic ladder,” says Mark Potok, director for the Intelligence Report at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The idea is that second-generation Hispanics often wind up with businesses and so on and there is real resentment with that.”

While Powers and Sons makes an effort to recruit black workers, Powers says he does feel a twinge of conflict in the community about this issue.

“That tension is heightening in the community because the Hispanic work force has gotten so large,” Powers says. “You end up in some areas with groups protesting the racial makeup of the work force. We are extremely sensitive to that and our response is to try as best we can to have our subcontractors employ people who reflect the community.”

Powers and Sons doesn’t shy away from hiring Hispanics, however. The company’s goal is to hire the best workers to get the job done.

“If they (Hispanics) can do the job we hire them,” Powers says. “At the end of the day, we have to run a business. We just go the extra mile to be as inclusive as possible to African-Americans.”

Working together
Amid the conflict, there are examples of cooperation. In many parts of the country, even areas with large black and Hispanic populations, some groups have found ways to work together to combat problems that affect both races. Some of the sources of conflict come from forces outside the black and Hispanic communities.

“Yes, there is tension,” says Frank Fuentes, president of the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association, “when forces who are not minorities try and pit us against each other. It benefits minority communities to work together.”

The National Association of Minority Contractors is an example of an organization working toward addressing the concerns of black, Native-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and women contractors.

“We are trying to be inclusive of all minorities, so there is no conflict there,” says Walter E. Dukes, professor at the University of Florida’s M.E. Rinker Sr. School of Building Construction and NAMC board member. “You try and get the best people for the job. If you want quality work, you can get it from the best people whether they are white, black, Hispanic or Asian. There is so much work out here that we need to get everyone who is able to perform, and yet we are still behind.”

Black and Hispanic contractors have to compete for bids on projects like any other contractor. While competition does exist between many of these firms, they acknowledge that cooperation will help all involved.

“Every contractor who is a business owner is a competitor,” says Laura Kagle, vice-chair of the Austin, Texas, chapter of the Hispanic Contractors Association, which works with the state’s black contractors to improve industry conditions for both communities. “No matter if you are an African-American or a Hispanic contractor, you are competing for the opportunities that exist out there, but I can tell you we work closely with black associations because our issues are the same, especially when it comes to getting our foot in the door.”