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NYC has over 8 million residents and close to 60 percent of them are non-white. Even so, 94.5 percent of the city’s contracts go to businesses owned by white men. Black people in New York wake up everyday, go to work and pay their taxes, only to have the city hand over those tax dollar to businesses owned by people who don’t look like them, so they can build wealth and hire people that don’t look like them. With all the talk about elections in the air, it’s time that we get down to business.
Whether the city is New York, Chicago or St. Louis, the issue is the same — cities promise to do better on “diversity” in contracting but the numbers remain largely the same. Whether at the federal, state or municipal level, Black owned companies are not getting their fair share of government contracts and it impedes their ability to grow and uplift Black communities.
But there was a time when progress was being made on the issue. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, Black people began to use the power of the vote to elect leaders who used their authority to promote Black business. Mayor Marion Barry of Washington made sure that minority owned businesses got 47 percent of city contracts by the end of his tenure. In Richmond there was a local ordinance stipulating that work valued at 30 percent of the value of city construction contracts had to be awarded to businesses with minority owners. It helped that in 1977 Richmond got its first Black mayor and another directly after, in 1982. Real gains were happening and then people got mad. Big mad.
The Richmond ordinance was challenged in the courts. Despite the fact that Black owned companies were virtually banned from government contracting since the dawn of the republic, some just thought that “set-asides” and concrete targets for non-white male owned companies was simply too oppressive. Unfortunately the Supreme Court agreed and in 1989 voided the local law in Richmond. That action by the Supreme Court triggered lower courts around the country to dismantle similar programs in cities. The consequences were predictable. In 1986 32 percent of city contracts in Richmond went to minority owners. The very next year, when the set-aside program was suspended, the number went all the way down to 11 percent. The progress that was being made by Black elected officials was undone by the courts and has never been recovered.
Black people have undoubtedly been oppressed in America. As Black people began to use the power of the vote to remedy generations of injustice, they were beaten back down by the courts. The results are evident. The Supreme Court, in striking down the Richmond ordinance, said that generations of discrimination was ”too amorphous a basis for imposing a racially classified remedy” and in so doing, spit in the face of millions of Black people. The question now, as we continue to examine candidates for 2020, is whether Black voters will challenge them on this glaring injustice.