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June 12th, 2013

Why our Black business programs aren’t working

Harry Alford

Last week I wrote about why we have Black business programs. The evolution of them from the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the cause for their existence. Title VI of the Act and along with the US Supreme Court decisions justifies their existence. The most frustrating thing about it is the fact that most of them don’t work too well. Our collective gains in the public and corporate marketplace have been little and slow in coming. If we had genuine efforts and very positive results after 49 years of law there would be no need for affirmative action and participation programs. In other words, there would be no more discrimination in the business marketplace. But unfortunately, racism still raises its ugly head. Let’s look at some examples.

The most important part of making someone eligible for participating in these programs is certification. For some reason, in 2008, the Small Business Administration ceased certifying Small Disadvantaged Businesses (SDB). This will open the door for false claims and fraud. The federal programs will become littered with "front" businesses participating as if they are small and disadvantaged. A million dollar white owned business could now claim the company to be an SDB. Thus, there will be participation reports that are terribly inflated and misleading. Maybe that is what the SBA’s intent is since their current level for Black participation is 1.5% (in 2012).

State departments of transportation are required under Title VI to have diversity programs. The Los Angeles International Airport, LAX, chooses to have a strange version of a program. It’s the race neutral program. Programs that address racial discrimination by having a race neutral program are shams. In essence, race neutral means "white men companies only". It doesn’t work and their numbers show it. In fact, the whole state of California is 54% ethnic minority but their procurement programs are virtually void of any acceptable measurement of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. On the corporate side, Silicon Valley is a wasteland in terms of procurement diversity.

Every five years, states and cities are supposed to perform a Disparity Study to determine if discrimination among businesses exist (US Supreme Court). The state of Illinois has recently done a study. The study shows that Blacks are the most discriminated group among all contractors (duh!). It calls for strict improvement in the goals. Funny, the governor’s office is trying to suppress the study due to pressure from white women groups who are over-utilized according to the study. The truth sometimes hurts and this state needs to come to terms with its ongoing discrimination of Black businesses. The Illinois Black Legislative Caucus should block all legislation until this study is implemented.

In the city of Milwaukee there is a similar situation. The city’s recent Disparity Study shows Black businesses being heavily under-utilized while Hispanics and white women seem to have no discrimination against them. Guess who is suing the city to stop the implementation of this program? The Wisconsin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce! They want a race neutral program. I don’t know what kind of kool-aid they are drinking. Their law firm has an anti-affirmative action past. Go figure.

Then there is Jacksonville, Florida. Their recent Disparity Study is being held up by the city council. Black and Hispanic groups have come together to demand the implementation of the study which clearly shows Blacks and Hispanics terribly under – utilized. I think the city’s Black mayor ought to step up – sooner rather than later.

There are many cities and states which are recalcitrant in complying with Title VI and the two rulings of the US Supreme Court. We have run out of patience. The National Black Chamber of Commerce, led by our Chair, Dorothy Leavell, is going to go on the offensive. We are going to call out entities such as the few above and put public exposure and pressure on these elected officials who are timid about addressing discrimination. My Lord! It has been 153 years since the Civil War began and slavery was finally condemned. Full citizenship is our demand.

Most cities with the biggest problem are without a functional Black chamber of commerce. If they do have one it needs to step up its value to the local community and get involved or just shut itself down. The three poorest big cities with large Black populations are Detroit, Cleveland and Cincinnati. That makes sense since none of these cities have a really functional Black chamber of commerce whose focus is on Black business development.

Let’s stand up and make these programs work. It is on our shoulders and it is time to march.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, President and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.

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