The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alexandria agrees to scrap grant program for minority-owned businesses

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Alexandria city officials canceled plans to launch a new grant program for minority-owned businesses this week, after facing blowback from conservatives and allegations in a federal lawsuit that the grant criteria discriminated against White people.

The Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) Small Business Grant Program would have distributed grants of up to $7,000 to local firms with “at least 51% BIPOC ownership.” Democratic leaders in the city had allocated $500,000 in funding, saying the grants would alleviate the disproportionate effect the coronavirus pandemic had on Black- and minority-owned businesses while also addressing “structural barriers and discriminatory financial lending practices … [and] increased displacement pressure as rents rise and neighborhoods change,” according to the program’s website.

But before the application period opened last month, a defense contracting company alleged in Alexandria federal court that it was “excluded because its owner is the wrong race.”

“White-owned businesses are not eligible — a point the program reiterates several times,” attorneys for the defense contractor, Tridentis, wrote in a lawsuit filed Jan. 22.

In a statement posted online Monday, Alexandria city officials said that “upon review of the lawsuit … we have decided we will not launch the program as currently proposed.”

In an interview Wednesday, Alexandria Mayor Justin M. Wilson (D) said the coronavirus pandemic helped uncover ways in which minority-owned businesses struggle compared with White-owned businesses in dealing with banks and coronavirus-relief programs at the federal, state and local levels.

“Throughout this process, we’ve tried to make sure businesses that are oftentimes on the losing end of some of these programs have an opportunity to benefit from them,” he said. “It helps us address some of the inequities that exist in our community — around health, around wealth, around capital.”

Alexandria officials said that as part of an agreement with Tridentis, the city admitted that the grant criteria as previously written violated the 14th Amendment. A city spokeswoman added that the funds would be used in other ways to assist minority businesses.

“We are working hard to address the needs of this community, which we intend to do in full compliance with the U.S. Constitution,” spokeswoman Ebony Fleming said.

Tridentis’s legal team included the Project on Fair Representation, a conservative group known for filing court challenges to race-based admission policies in higher education.

Edward Blum, the group’s leader, said other cities have programs that dole out city resources based on race, but “I don’t recall ever seeing a city that just sort of decides to make small business grants and limit it to African American or BIPOC businesses.”

“Other jurisdictions and states that implement similar BIPOC-only programs will have them vigorously challenged in the courts,” Blum said.

How one man brought affirmative action to the Supreme Court. Again and again.

Tridentis and its owner, David K. Jochum, argued that the Supreme Court has said racial classifications are allowed only in rare circumstances and must be “narrowly tailored” to achieve “compelling governmental interests.” The Alexandria grant program failed that test and violated the 14th Amendment, his legal team said.

Kevin Harris, founder of the Alexandria Minority Business Association, said the $500,000 grant program represented “less than 0.05 percent” of the city’s 2023 budget of more than $1 billion. In a news release last month, he criticized the Tridentis lawsuit as “political theater that comes at the expense of the Alexandria community.” Other community advocates questioned why a naval-engineering contractor with high costs and cash flows was seeking a grant from the city capped at $7,000.

“It’s vital that we all stand firm in our support for BIPOC businesses and against any agendas that seek to marginalize communities of color,” Harris said Wednesday. “One of the key aspects moving forward will be that this new program is funded substantially enough that it sends the message clearly that Alexandria values our BIPOC-business community and that Alexandria is committed to equity and inclusion regardless of the opposition.”

Virginia Attorney General Jason S. Miyares (R), whose office submitted an amicus brief to the court, said “it is difficult to conceive a more blatant violation of the Equal Protection Clause.”

“The Program parcels out public money expressly on the basis of skin color, granting money to members of preferred racial groups and denying it to all others,” Miyares’s brief says. “According to the City, White Alexandrians and Alexandrians of Arab or Middle Eastern descent need not apply.”

Teo Armus contributed to this report.