The city has a new measure, now pending approval in Congress, which would broadly expand the categories of minorities that could participate in its $140 million-a-year minority contracting program.
The old law limits the program to black Americans, native Americans, and Hispanics from South and Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The new law would expand the program to include Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Hispanics of European descent.
When the bitter debate first broke last May in the City Council, I argued that the program should be broadened to include them. I agreed with protesting black businessmen that they as a group were still at the bottom of the barrel and may be hurt economically. But I thought other minorities were right when they said discrimination wasn't confined to blacks. Besides, I thought the conservative climate made it suicidal for minorities to be fighting each other.
Now I say that the final version of the City Council bill passed on Sept. 22, which added those groupshas broadened the net so wide that the original intent of the legislation may be lost.
All this strikes me as a case of the council setting out to try to address what it saw as a wrong, and in an attempt to correct it, creating an even greater problem. In a case such as this, do you change your mind once you better understand the realities?From where I stand, you do. I now find that the realities of expanding minority participation are a lot more complex.
I am now convinced that the bill, as it was approved by an 8-to-3 vote of the council, is so broad in its definition of minority as to border on the humorous. Because there are no geographical or residential restrictions, as the bill now stands, a struggling black businessman from Anacostia might have to compete with new immigrants from Mongolia, Laos, Soviet Asia or Sri Lanka for a city contract. This really evokes a basic discussion of "minority" -- where do you draw the line? Is everybody who is not free, white, male and 21 a minority?
As I understand the original federal legislation, the main criterion was whether groups had been historically disadvantaged socially. The thinking was to facilitate the entrance of minorities in this country into the business world.
The theory was that certain groups of people should receive government contracts set aside for that group because they had been held back in this country. It developed, however, that because the program is a benefit, everyone wanted in on it.
The question is how you maintain the integrity of the program's purpose given the desire of so many people to make their way in this country. Edward Norton, former general counsel for the Small Business Administration, who is consulting with a coalition of black businessmen, put it this way: "Everybody wants to be classified as a minority because it gives you benefits."
Rep. Parren Mitchell (D-Md.), chairman of the House small business subcommittee, has consistently fought against the expanded definition of minority beyond blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Aleuts because that would diminish the potential benefits to participants who already had too thin a sliver of the economic pie.
"Hispanics of European descent would not be in line with what I would recommend including," he told me. "It is going to be very difficult because many Spanish of European descent have not encountered discrimination in terms of color and are not socially and economically disadvantaged. If they were, there should be a rather strict test to prove they were socially and economically disadvantaged."
As to Asian Americans, there is no doubt that they should be a part of the program -- Japanese Americans, in particular, suffered in concentration camps in this country in World War II. But the City Council bill that includes them is just too broadly written.
We can only hope the City Council will back away from its posture and realize its language was overly broad. It is fine to be inclusive, but the problems must be regulated on the basis of precise definitions.
I think the main task will be deciding who has been historically disadvantaged, socially and economically. Without such an analytical framework, the result could be chaos.
One former federal official familiar with the program put it: "If everybody tries to become a minority, why have the program? That's the best way to get rid of a minority enterprise program."