In the atmosphere of the much publicized "investigations" of recent weeks, a number of blacks have stopped communicating and, presumably fearing reprisal and exposure, have failed to support people who should be presumed innocent unless proven otherwise.
At the same time, a substantial number of whites seem to have taken the position of uninvolved spectators who, despite the fact that they live in this community and benefit from it, have no stake or interest in the outcome, except perhaps to confirm certain preconceived notions concerning the merits of black political and economic participation.
Washington is the hub of a large metropolis to be sure, but given the limited and relatively brief access to economic and political opportunity by blacks in this community, the city also operates much like a village in which everyone knows everyone else.
Yet, there appears to be an implication in much of the reporting on District affairs that the mere friendship or association with or support for a political officeholder on the part of a black entrepreneur is outside the pale of community mores or standard business practice.
Surely the history of the American republic, to say nothing of the yearly expenditures for political access of lobbyists, trade associations and PACs would belie such an assumption. Although black Americans were almost totally excluded from the nation's political and economic mainstream for over 200 years, they were certainly in a position to observe the interplay between political access and economic opportunity at every governmental level, which has helped generate the vast fortunes of so many of America's present-day multimillionaires.
Black entrepreneurs should continue therefore to pursue aggressively contract opportunities in the D.C. government and in the Washington metropolitan area, in accordance with legal requirements and accepted business and ethical practices.
It is also incumbent upon whites in the community to assess objectively their own reactions to recent events. Notwithstanding the set-aside provisions for minority participation in D.C. government, it is still true that in a community that is approximately 70 percent black, at least 60 percent of all contracts go to whites. Considering the population, existing distribution of resources and current and potential levels of minority business participation, the proportion of contract awards and dollars awarded to minority entrepreneurs should be substantially increased.
Successful minority entrepreneurs do not develop overnight. Unsubstantiated accusations and negative exposure in the media can certainly have a chilling effect. Reporting contract awards to minorities in gross dollar volume can be misleading if not accompanied by analyses of total contract dollars awarded to whites.
"Leaks" and one-sided reporting can lead to excuses by whites for not making or keeping commitments to encourage greater minority participation. We need more, not less, involvement of blacks in the entrepreneurial mainstream. We also need the active and vocal support of white decision-makers in furthering this goal.
The Washington Urban League intends to do what it can to maintain and strengthen the fragile ties between and among blacks and whites that have become frayed in recent weeks. One step might be the creation of an independent Citizens Committee for Effective Government, to find ways in which the talents of black and white leaders can be focused on problems. An immediate issue might well be the expansion of minority entrepreneurial involvement in government contracting and downtown and neighborhood development.
We stand ready to spearhead the creation of such a forum, and to seek other ways to create more lasting "unity" in Washington, D.C., our own home-town laboratory for racial and economic justices.
Betti S. Whaley is president of the Washington Urban League. Patrick G. Hartley is chairman of the league's board of directors.