The Urban League is reviving the call, first raised some 20 years ago by the late Whitney Young, for a "domestic Marshall Plan." PUSH, Inc., is pressuring big business, including the soft-drink and auto industries, to make franchise, subcontracting and service opportunities available to blacks. The NAACP, which earlier had announced its Operation Fair Share, has unveiled a new minority business advocacy program.
The consensus appears to be growing that, to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge, the business of civil rights is business.
The new emphasis does not mean that the civil rights establishment has gone conservative, at least not in the sense of government-is-the-problem Reaganism. But it does suggest the view that blacks cannot hope to sustain recent gains or to achieve new ones unless they are able to share in the nation's economic power.
And the irony is more apparent than real when this new declaration of the need for economic independence is accompanied by demands for federal assistance. The first point of the NAACP's business advocacy program, for instance, calls upon the federal government to set and enforce goals for higher levels of minority participation in government procurement.
If American business is in trouble, as attested to by record levels of bankruptcy, minority business is clinging by its fingernails. A recent poll shows that, in this city alone, 24 black-owned firms have laid off an average of 26 employees; that half of the 24 have lost at least a third of their work forces, and that 30 percent have suffered a 50 percent reduction in the dollar volume of their federal contracts.
When you consider that nearly all of these firms were surviving largely on the strength of federal procurement and performance contracts, you have the makings of a special disaster.
The obvious rejoinder is that black contractors make a mistake to become overly reliant on government contracts, and particularly on special minority set-aside programs, in the first place. Wouldn't they be better off if they simply set about producing the best possible product at the lowest possible cost, and beat the competition fair and square?
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. The price-and-quality gap among qualified contractors is, in most cases, so small that a contracting officer, whether in the government or in private industry, can award contracts to cronies and friends of friends without penalizing his employer. After all, how good -- or bad -- can a paper clip or a wooden pallet or a computer run be?
Set-aside programs guarantee minorities a level of business free of competition from whites. "Graduation" into the mainstream makes them subject once again to the vagaries of discrimination.
The NAACP program calls for an increase in set-asides, tougher enforcement of federal laws requiring prime contractors to use minority firms as subcontractors, and a joint private-federal program of enhanced minority access to capital and credit.
It also calls for an approach that has nothing to do with the federal government but leads from the NAACP's own strength.
According to NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks, one of the reasons minority businesses rely so heavily on the government is that their relationships with white business have been one-way affairs.
For example, he said, 250 Washington-based minority firms are spending some $25 million a year on office rental, another $4 million on copy machine rental and $5 million in telephone costs, while non-minority business purchases from black firms amount to little or nothing.
So what does he intend to do? Instead of tackling only the industry giants, as the PUSH campaign has done, Hooks hopes to use the NAACP's local chapter structure to target moderate-sized local firms that refuse to subcontract with local minority suppliers and contractors.
"We will examine the purchasing practices of selected corporations and communicate our findings to our NAACP constituency throughout the country," Hooks declares. "The NAACP intends to use its power to withhold economic support of its constituents from those companies found to be least actively procuring goods and services from black suppliers."
The civil rights establishment, it appears, means business.