Abstract: Making Businessmen out of Craftsmen: Black Capitalism and the Problem of Knowledge in the Construction Industry

John J. Rosen


Since the late 1960s, the issue of African American business development has ignited hotly contested debates over affirmative action and in particular the much-maligned minority set-aside programs that factor in local, state, and federal contract procurement. This paper looks beyond the quota issue by offering a historical perspective that places the issue of knowledge at the center of black capitalism. Its focus is on the construction industry, which held both symbolic and practical importance in the African American struggle for economic equality and where the government pioneered affirmative action programs in both employment and business. In particular, I examine how African American construction contractors have approached the problem of knowledge throughout the twentieth century, beginning with members of the National Negro Business League and concluding with the National Association of Minority Contractors. I argue that the need to acquire and disseminate knowledge has been paramount to black contractors as they have fought for what they considered to be a fair and equal share of the national construction market. As this paper will discuss, the way that black contractors viewed the problem of knowledge changed over time and contributed to a distinct form of protest politics that blended elements of Black Power with liberalism and state action with voluntarism. These efforts by African American contractors to supplement set-aside policies with educational programs have been written out of the dominant narrative concerning affirmative action.