A stormy D.C. Council hearing on minority-contract legislation the other day raised a delicate question: when there is a program that sets aside 25 percent of the city's contracts for recognized minority businesses, who should be included in that "minority"?
At issue specifically is a proposal to include Asian-Americans and Hispanics of European descent in the city's $125 million-a-year minority contracting program. The law now applies primarily to blacks, American Indians and Hispanics from this hemisphere. Council member John Wilson, sponsor of a proposal to broaden the definition, believes that "until every minority is given an opportunity, all minorities . . . are discriminated against."
Mr. Wilson drew some nasty remarks from Cardell Shelton, president of a construction and maintenance company. Mr. Shelton accused the city government of insensitivity to the problems of blacks, telling Mr. Wilson that "your blackness has to be questioned. What part have you played in helping us?" At that point, Charlene Drew Jarvis, in the chair, properly admonished Mr. Shelton: "I will not tolerate an address like that."
Crude as they were, Mr. Shelton's comments reflect many of the difficulties in defining "minorities" for contracts. If the "blackness" of someone can be questioned on the basis of his views, should his skin color be ignored at contract time? But then, blacks make up the majority of the District's population--should there be a "majority contracting program" setting aside 70 percent of the contracts for blacks? Should the minority contract program set aside 25 percent for whites?
Several black business owners contended that Asians have easier access to banks and therefore less need to participate in the set-aside program. Asian and Hispanic witnesses countered that members of their groups have also suffered discrimination. As for Hispanics "of European descent," they were excluded earlier after complaints that wealthy Europeans from Spain and Portugal were obtaining major contracts through the program. That raises yet another question: if wealth becomes a measure, at what point does a wealthy black American or any other American become ineligible, either individually or as part of a group that is deemed too well off?
We do not suggest an end to the minority contracting program at this point, but the arguments for expanding the definition of minorities have obvious merit. Mr. Wilson's concerns are serious ones.
Still, the idea that race or national origin is an appropriate standard for permanent--as distinct from remedial--legislation should not be allowed to seep into government policy. When the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a federal minority contract program, Justice Lewis F. Powell described the problem well: "The time cannot come too soon," he said, "when no governmental decision will be based upon immutable characteristics of pigmentation or origin. But in our quest to achieve a society free from racial classification, we cannot ignore the claims of those who still suffer from the effects of identifiable discrimination."