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Is there a monster in the closet?

I love having grandchildren. Besides being able to spoil them and letting their
parents sort it out, you get to escort them to all of the movies that you’d
be embarrassed to enter without a child at your side. I got a kick out of Monsters
Inc. – the story about monsters that really reside in your child’s closet
and how one little kid happened to enter their strange world.

Many adults
see monsters in their closets when nothing really exists. It’s not so hard
to imagine when the lights go out and our eyes begin to adjust just enough to
make out the shadows in the dark and the outline of inanimate objects. Everywhere
we look, objects appear to take the shape of living and breathing monsters created
through our imagination, a late night meal or just a little too much to drink.
But few things fuel the illusion of a beast in the dark as much as violent news
stories just before bed, reading about a neighborhood break-in or listening to
a close friend or family member relive a frightening encounter. These stories
are stashed away in the recesses of our mind waiting to be awakened by the right
stimulus.

So it is with racism. Sometimes it’s hard being black when
your opinion differs from the mainstream. It’s not so much as a difference
of opinion on the issue of racism, but how much of it truly exists, how much of
it is simply conservative behavior and how much of it is like the monster in the
closet.

The blame game

A recent report by the Milwaukee National
Association of the Advancement of Colored People and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
shed light on a real problem in the construction industry — the lack of people
of color in the trades. The numbers are appalling, inexcusable and downright scandalous.
The question is who or what is to blame for the problem. I’d like to give
my perspective on how to spread the blame.

After a five-year commitment
to increase the number of apprentices coming from Milwaukee Public Schools, a
preliminary review showed that not one extra apprentice was placed, even though
there was a commitment to place 75 over a period of five years. Was it racism?
Knowing the participants, I doubt it. More likely, it was a lack of will and political
pressure.

Most contractors are small. The 2002 U.S. Census shows 37,208
commercial and institutional contractors in America, with 14,388 having from one
to four employees, 7,639 with five to nine employees and 7,624 with 10 to 19 employees.
Therefore, 29,651 firms (79.69 percent) had less than 20 employees. Only 1,033
contractors had more than 100 employees. Firms having less than 20 employees employed
185,583 employees (25.92 percent) of the 715,896 U.S. construction workers. Firms
with more than 100 employees employed 273,730 or (38.24 percent) of the work force.

Discrimination
is a bad thing – I think most of us agree — but, in a four-person (likely
family owned) firm, I would expect it and not object to it. Very few minority
construction firms in Milwaukee have more than 10 to 15 people, with most having
less than four; these firms are seldom integrated.

Attention therefore focuses
on larger firms that lack diversity. While the location of a construction business
has a great deal to do with who applies, unions often play a significant role
in worker selection, regardless of firm location. Noting the reported dismal industry
results, is it racism? Only an examination of each contractor’s practices
and employee base will reveal why the industry is so devoid of color. Clearly
something is afoot, and it is not all a lack of qualifications.

Conservative
positioning

We’re told our government enacts laws, rules and regulations
to combat racism, to improve education and job placement – but most don’t
have race-based programs.

Clearly something has failed. Is it racism? The
lack of a race-based affirmative action policy does not equate to racism. Conservative
positioning is not racism, although the feel and outcomes can look identical.

Outside
of large urban populations where significant minority influence has changed laws
to provide some redress, every once in awhile, someone “cuts one loose in
public” and everyone knows exactly who did it. I offer the quote of a Green
Bay alderman last year: “Being a racist may be a smart thing to protect your
property in this city.” President Lincoln once said, “It is better to
keep your mouth shut and have people think of you as a fool, than to open it and
remove all doubt.” Somebody in Green Bay ought to take a memo.

Like
it or not, the solution for overcoming racism rests with the very people it is
holding back. The late Dr. Benjamin Mays of Morehouse College and an advisor to
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that people who start behind in the
race of life would either have to run faster or forever remain behind. We’ve
got to get running.

People of color must learn to work cooperatively to
purchase from and support one another. Small minority contractors typically employ
minority people. The more small minority contractors deployed on projects, the
more minority trades people (and people from the city of Milwaukee) tend to be
employed. The best help is self help.

The life of a business person is inherently
full of excitement. Minority folk must work hard to avoid thinking that around
every twist and bend lays a racist obstacle, waiting to disrupt our smooth ride
to success. Sometimes life is like a spring drive in Wisconsin — no matter
how cautious you’re being, you’re bound to hit a pothole or two. The
funny thing is, if you stay focused on where you’re going, the odds are good
you won’t even recognize those obstacles placed by racists — any more
than those that happen to be general purpose road hazards, waiting for any old
passerby — until long after you’re far down the road and you can barely
see the monster in your rearview window.

Randy Crump is senior associate
of Prism Technical Management & Marketing Services, Milwaukee, and has coordinated
the disadvantage business enterprise goals for Miller Park and Lambeau Field.

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