Talking small cherries against watermelons
Let’s face it: in some circles, the acronym MBE is a four-letter word.
Even if it’s only three letters (and isn’t a word, but an acronym representing three nouns), it nonetheless spells trouble–or at least an inconvenience–for the status quo to which it represents sharing a pie they had been previously consumed all by those of a select hue and class.
To the victims of institutional racism and what has aphoristically been called ‘white privilege’, MBE, and its siblings–DBE, EBE, and cousin by marriage, WBE—is a legal Godsend that ‘somewhat’ (more ‘some’ than ‘what)’ equalizes the economic playing field and posits to make up for decades of apartheid.
To those forced by ‘law and morality’ to share the pie, however, those ‘legal remedies’ run contrary to the American dream (for us a nightmare), and an age-old system of entrepreneurial exclusion.
The acronyms, along with their sperm donor–affirmative action–is at odds with the American axiom of ‘boot strapping’, the status quo claims, as well as the capitalistic foundation on which this country was built (which you remember included slavery).
From the perspective of the ‘haves,’ minority business participation programs, desegregation and affirmative action are merely ‘handouts’ to the ‘have nots’, providing opportunities and monetary set asides to the unqualified and incompetent.
Those conflicting opinions shape the political and economic debate that has divided America for the last half century.
Some ‘haves’ even find little separation between the ‘legal’ remedy to economic apartheid and welfare, even though both programs have been so weakened in recent years that they carry little weight in the larger sociopolitical context.
And even if you were callous to contrast the impact of social welfare and affirmative action against corporate welfare and tax breaks to majority companies, we’re talking small cherries against watermelons. (This time it’s not us spitting out seeds.)
To those who decry affirmative action and so-called handouts to the poor, answer this question: How much did the feds spend to bail out Wall Street and the auto industry in the last three years?
Or let’s localize the controversy.
The state GOP’s tax breaks to corporations in this year’s budget are in sharp contrast to the cuts planned for W-2 (the welfare replacement program), Seniorcare and public education.
The only group not affected by the recession was state and national road builders. Hell, for that matter, where did the $800 billion in economic stimulus go? I’ll give you a clue. It didn’t reach us.
Despite what politicians and special interests will have you believe (I assume to detour our energies that would be better vested in a quest for true economic and political empowerment), participation programs and affirmative action are today mere shadows of what they were when initially enacted. Which is not to say they are valuable or worth sustaining, but the reality is we’re fighting over crumbs today, and still they play games on us.
Affirmative action (ironically first introduced by former Republican President Richard Nixon) was essentially killed by Democratic President Bill Clinton as part of a strategy to out Republican the Republicans.
And for those who think participation programs are a form of welfare, Clinton also campaigned for and ultimately signed legislation to ‘reshape (i.e. kill) Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
A Black state representative later introduced the legislation to officially end welfare, as we knew it, in Wisconsin. The result was W-2 (Wisconsin Works), which was systematically scaled back and all but killed in this year’s state budget.
But let’s not get sidetracked comparing welfare with affirmative action, or portend that minority business programs are ‘giveaways’ or reparations.
Let’s approach these interwoven concepts not from the perspective of whether they are meaningful, but instead how impactful they are today versus yesterday.
And on that point most agree: society, sustained by government, has not fulfilled promise or potential.
And we shouldn’t ignore the other elephant in the room– that large beast that begs the question of why we’re still stuck in a scenario where we’re fighting for a ‘minority’ piece of the pie, which is what MBE (Minority Business Enterprise), EBE (Emerging Business Enterprise) and DBE (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise) primarily represent.
We now comprise 40% of the city’s population, yet fight tooth and nail to sustain a program with goals of half that percentage. And, ironically, studies have shown most government bodies rarely meet those laudable, albeit miniscule goals. That’s the true absurdity.
Why is that?
Business interests, with much to lose if African Americans were truly on an equal playing field, funded and spearheaded the dental work that pulled the teeth out of Minority Business Enterprise programs.
Those efforts resulted in removing ‘race’ as a factor. In other words, no race based solutions to race based problems.
As a result, when the county moved from a ‘minority’ business program to a disadvantaged program, it not only reduced opportunities for ‘Black’ businesses, but opened the door for other so-called ‘disadvantaged’ entities to further cut into the pie.
While the transition was legally justified because the county was the recipient of major federal funding, and thus had to abide by federal regulations that replaced quotas with ‘goals,’ those amendments were morally bankrupt, or at the very least disingenuous for Black Milwaukeeans who were victimized by decades of second class citizenship.
The end game was preordained: White women and other ‘disadvantaged Whites quickly pushed Black firms to the sidelines. Some of the women’s firms were and are fronted by spouses, who already own majority firms.
Some, so-called disadvantaged firms are owned by people who are nowhere near what the average Black Milwaukeean would consider ‘disadvantaged,’ but meet governmental criteria when you exclude personal property, which includes a million dollar house, the queen’s jewelry and the private jet owned by your husband. When these “toys” are taken out of the equation, you’re ‘disadvantaged?’
Equally significant is the fact that most government programs are based on ‘goals’ instead of quotas, a controversial distinction but one that nonetheless severely weakens opportunities for the true victims of institutional bias.
The city replaced its MBE program with an ‘Emerging’ business program, one that has not only never met expectations, but stigmatized firms in the process.
When I was a member of the Miller Park stadium board we had the authority to fine companies that didn’t meet our stated goals (which some interpreted as quotas). The fines were hefty, and funded a technical assistance program that strengthened minority firms.
Still, many majority firms found it more advantageous to pay the fine than give up a share of their profits to qualified Black companies.
When the smoke cleared, we met our goals anyway, and were also able to provide invaluable assistance to minority firms, many of whom were new to the process.
The Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District doesn’t have the strength of law behind it that the stadium did, but it’s the closest program there is that’s comparable to the Miller Park participation program.
It consistently does well, and has also incorporated a technical assistance program. That’s not by coincidence.
The state Department of Transportation also does ‘fairly well’ (although you rarely hear of a Black firm selected as a prime contractor), and within the limits of its constraints, so does the county and MPS.
But in total, if you added up all the goals of the state, county, MMSD, city and MPS, Black folks are far below where they collectively should be.
And insider, back room and golf course maneuvering of “good-‘ol-boy-sim” still rules the day.
Call it what you want, the reality is White companies generally do business with other Whites, regardless of the qualifications of Black firms.
As the construction trades crack open their membership doors only wide enough to allow sons and daughters in, the business community has been playing a game of bait and switch with government contracts for goods and services. In other words, the good ole boy system still rules the day.
Enter now the NAACP, which is asking for an audit of the state, county and city.
The local branch sent out letters to each representative branch requesting an audit to see if the various levels of government are in compliance with federal civil rights laws, as well as their own individual contract compliance and economic development ordinances.
In a nutshell, the NAACP is looking at affirmative action in the boarder sense of civil rights and equal protection. Each aspect of affirmative action—whether court ordered hiring goals (as is the case of the fire and police department), minority/disadvantaged participation programs, and even block grants are under that umbrella.
If the NAACP request is honored, there will be a day of reckoning that is long over due.
The civil rights group hopes to provide proof positive as to why the Black poverty rate has not decreased in the last 50 years, and why Black businesses do far better any place but here.
The NAACP also seeks to expose the unkept promises of government for civil service jobs and distribution of resources.
It’s long past time this elephant is exposed to the world, to finally begin a process through which we begin to lower the unemployment rate through expansion of Black businesses with a vested interest in our community.
For the truth needs to be told, including the fact that despite the publicly stated good intentions of government managers and politicians, none has prioritized equal opportunity or full participation.
Well, some of you will say, forget the set-a-sides, or affirmative action in general, let’s go after the prime contracts, or utilize Black businesses for our basic products and services. We don’t need the government handouts, and surely not as a primary economic tool.
That’s true, I agree. But there are two problems with that scenario. First, we should never lose sight of the fact that so-called government money—contracts—is our money. We represent 40% of the city’s population, and we disproportionately pay taxes. Why should we settle for, or be happy with crumbs?
Secondly, if we possessed a true sense of Black Nationalism and unity, if we followed the example of other successful ethnic groups who prioritize spending their dollars among themselves, or merely reverted to our culture of 50 years ago when this was in fact a ‘community,’ we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
All those acronyms would spell out an unnecessary and bygone era.