The Post's article of May 22 regarding the proposed elimination of certain Hispanic groups from participation in the city's minority contracts deserves a public response.
Some facts should be cleared up first. Although the exact figures have not been made available by the authorities, and the Minority Business Opportunity Commission has not seen fit to release copies of their proposal, it now appears that Hispanics have obtained only a low percentage of the "set-aside" or "shelter" funds, and that the major Hispanic companies referred to in the Post article have obtained their contracts largely on the open market.
There is no doubt that major questions remain unresolved, as pointed out by William Raspberry in his column of May 23: Who is a minority? Who deserves compensatory benefits? To what degree is race or culture a factor? Is a well-off Hispanic or a prosperous Afro-American a "minority" pursuant to the original intent of the law? And so on. But the proposed response is senseless.
The major part of the Hispanic population in the District is from Central and South America. Many are painters, plasteres, carpenters who would like to start or develop businesses. They are decidedly a minority, both racially and culturally. Because of doubts regarding qualifications in a couple of cases, the commission would shut the door to all of these working people. There can be no question that the special recognition by the Commission of Puerto Ricans and Chicanos would tend objectively to divide our community. Fortunately, organizations from both these groups have expressed their outrage at the proposal, and Puerto Ricans have been among our strongest supporters on this issue.
The proposal does not recognize the existence of Caribbean nationalities (as opposed to Central and South American), such as Haitan and Dominican.Their members, by the way, are in fact mostly black, as are most Panamanians here, and a good number of Colombians, Cubans and others. Hispanics come in all shapes and colors. The commission would be well-advised to consider further whether even white Hispanics have not "been forced to live in a cultural bag." It is a fact that there are no Hispanics on the commission.
But the main problems stem from broader issues, such as the following:
Minority-preference programs are largely the product of political action in the '60s led by black people. Because our system does not really address economic differences, all such regulations were worded in terms of race and culture. That is, it is now theoretically illegal to discriminate by race, but perfectly legal to do so because of income or status. These days, however, the courts are requiring strict proof of discriminatory intent before protections are invoked, so that the progress has been limited.
Even these limited gains are now under attack nationwide. This is reflected in the Bakke and Weber cases, and in other such cases and statutes. The income of blacks and other minorities is falling further and further behind white income, as the Urban League has stressed. The strategy, which in the end does not emanate from the black community, seems to be to avoid overt actions and direct confrontation, and to do away instead with juridical and statutory protections. In the midst of the economic crisis, with a conservative gain in the last elections as a result of record campaign expenditures, both the courts and the legislatures have been backpedaling quickly.
Anything that weakens minority rights at this point will be used to full advantage by their opponents. The optimum approach, according to the sponsors of the present backlash, is to pit Afro-Americans and Hispanics against each other. The results are reflected in press reporting of the issues involved, including The Post's coverage.
The commission's proposal therefore is not directed only at a few contractors of certain nationalities; it affects all Hispanics, all minorities, all affirmative-action plans. To the commission we propose: Let's get Hispanics, and other minorities not now represented, on the commission; let's work out our problem in private; and let us not compete for the benefit of others, but join forces for our mutual benefit.
Rep. Charles Wilson (D-Texas), indicates that the District no longer needs a Minority Business Commission because it happens to be a majority black city. The fact is that only 3 percent of the business in D.C. is in black hands, and far less is owned by Hispanics. If there is a city that needs such a commission, Washington is it. Our community in D.C. has ties to a national constituency, and we stand ready to mobilize it in defense of our needs in the District. We have a lot to learn from each other. As the national minority leadership moves toward collaboration, let us do the same on a local level.