The new college student housing complex soaring at Fourth and Cooper Streets in downtown Camden provides unique perspectives on structural problems strangling that city located across the Delaware River from the Penn’s Landing waterfront in Philadelphia.
At 12 stories high this $55-million dollar facility planned for housing graduate students at Rutgers-Camden University obviously provides commanding views of a city persistently plagued by high-levels of poverty, unemployment and crime.
The shameful levels of poverty and unemployment in Camden are not natural aspirations of the people living in that city.
Problems of poverty and unemployment, however, flow naturally from structural inequities evident but not necessarily obvious in the policies and practices embedded within the construction of that high-rise housing and so many other construction projects.
High-wage paying jobs and revenue generating contracts for businesses on that multi-million-dollar project are deliberately bypassing non-white Camden residents and minority owned businesses across the Delaware Valley.
“I saw one Black worker out of the 40 persons I counted working on that site when I walked through the site,” said a source describing a visit to that housing complex construction site recently.
Deviously blocking the participation of minority workers and minority-owned businesses on publicly funded construction projects undergirds the economic exclusion that creates conditions causing poverty and unemployment in too many non-white communities.
Minority-owned businesses (most likely to hire minority workers) want revenue generating contracts as badly as minority workers want paychecks but these parallel aspirations are perpetually blocked by apartheid-like economic exclusion that is officially accepted and/or acquiesced.
“They play the game everywhere you go. Not much is different [with exclusion] in New Jersey than in Philadelphia,” said a Black businesswoman last week who owns a construction services company in Camden who is miffed about the barriers constantly erected against Black firms in the construction industry.
John Macklin, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Association of Minority Contractors, said the games of exclusion referenced by that black businesswoman are part of the “illusion of inclusion” perpetrated by government officials who protect and/or ignore construction industry prejudice.
“Government officials charged with oversight go along with the fraud and lies by the contractors and unions,” said Macklin during an interview last week. “They are deliberately making sure we make no money.”
Macklin recently provided Philadelphia’s City Council with a list of ten major construction projects around Philly totaling over $1 billion dollars where deliberate exclusion has, is and most likely will shortchange minority businesses.
Macklin knows construction exclusion intricately from serving in numerous minority contracting oversight posts with the city of Philadelphia from 1981 to 2003.
A press release issued in February 2011 about that student housing complex stressed benefits from that project for stimulating Camden’s economy.
The release quotes the area’s U.S. representative, a Democratic, touting the “300 construction jobs” from the project. The director of the Camden County Freeholders praised the project as part of initiatives “to create jobs and opportunities for Camden residents.”
Apparently that congressman, the freeholders’ director, Rutgers-Camden’s Chancellor and other top officials ceded oversight for ensuring equitable inclusion on the housing project over to the Camden County Improvement Authority and the prime contractor.
A subcontractor meeting held in October 2011 by the prime contractor was attended by nine participating firms, none of which is minority owned according to experts who’ve reviewed this project.
Four years before that press release Legal Services of New Jersey’s Poverty Research Institute issued a report stating more than 70 percent of Camden’s population is “living in true poverty.”
The LSNJ’s report also noted that the “job market for people seeking employment in the city of Camden is clearly depressed.”
Another report from the LSNJ’s Poverty Institute – released weeks after that rosy 2011 press release – stated that “more than 18 percent of Camden residents lived in severe poverty in 2009.”
In January 2012 CamConnect.org issued information stating Camden’s poverty rate is “more than double the national average.” (America’s poverty has increased substantially during the economic recession, alarmingly among children.)
With Camden’s dire poverty and unemployment well documented inaction by governmental entities on ensuring equitable minority inclusion on that publicly funded housing project contributes to problems plaguing Camden.
The observed lack of minority business and worker participation on that Camden college housing project is not exclusive to that city.
For weeks, non-white and female certified construction workers have staged demonstrations outside a Temple University construction site in North Philadelphia protesting their (alleged) exclusion from higher paying construction job positions. Some of those protestors showed up outside of Temple’s graduation ceremonies last Thursday.
Lurking around statistics of exclusion are stereotypes.
Most people looking at the impoverishment in Camden or North Philadelphia inaccurately draw upon stereotypes of non-whites being lazy and/or incompetent when seeing no minorities on construction sites.
Few — even among the educated — accurately understand the apartheid reality of deliberate and damaging exclusion.
And, fewer understand that the segregated business practices ravaging the private sector forces minority owned businesses and minority workers to fight for equitable inclusion on tax-funded construction projects.
Such segregation slams the door tightly on non-white involvement with privately funded projects — projects that comprise the largest share of all construction in America.
Greed that decimates sections of American society is not limited to the 1 percent elites and Wall Street.
The greed of contractors and building trade unions starves minority communities.
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.