For more than fifty years, public policy has influenced the behavior of procurement programs in both the public and private sectors. Laws and regulations guide the behavior and ensure proper consideration of diversity, equity and accessibility with various contracting sources. Public policy is the foundation for business creation, growth and economic prosperity.
Historically, debates about affirmative action have concentrated on the relative success of minorities in three principal areas: employment, education and economics. Of the three, minority business economics is perhaps the least studied, despite its importance for minority business progress and the nation’s economic success.
The 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama represented a pivotal, galvanizing moment for the Civil Rights movement. For the minority business movement, upcoming court rulings and policy decisions are likely to also mark a pivotal point in history.
Across the country, we see systematic attacks on programs established to support affirmative action and the inclusion of minorities in education, business and other aspects of American life. From what we are witnessing, it has gone beyond philosophical conversations and debates to hardcore legal action.
Central to what is anticipated as an impactful change are cases the Supreme Court is reviewing.
Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. President of Fellows of Harvard are two Supreme Court cases focused on race-conscious admissions and diversity in higher education. In both cases, the petitioner, Students for Fair Admissions, asks the court to change the law to prohibit the consideration of race in admissions.
With the conservative makeup of the Supreme Court and the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, it is widely anticipated that the court will eliminate race as a consideration in college admissions. Given what has historically happened, minority businesses must brace themselves for the anticipated tsunami effect of such a decision on race-conscious programs nationwide. A decision is anticipated this month.
Of great concern is what we are witnessing in real-time, close to home. The Minority Business Development Agency was established in 1972 to help level the playing field for minority businesses. It is the only federal agency focused on minority businesses. My organization is one of 50 business centers funded by the MBDA. Our business center extends services and resources to our historically underutilized businesses.
In March, three white business owners filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination (Nuziard v. MBDA) because MBDA’s focus is serving minority-owned businesses. While my organization viewed this case as meritless, it will be used to try to dismantle support offered to minority businesses or those classified as socially or economically disadvantaged individual businesses.
On June 5, a federal district court in Texas handed down a ruling that the MBDA is preliminarily enjoined from providing unequal treatment to the plaintiffs. This case focuses on lawsuits in three of the 50 centers. This has the potential to change how the federal government deals with minority businesses.
My organization is one of 23 Minority Supplier Development Councils around the country. We execute programs and certifications targeting minority-owned businesses. We should all be concerned about the potential of dismantling more than 50 years of development and advocacy all around us. Maryland has a minority business enterprise program, while Baltimore and Baltimore County have minority business procurement programs.
We’ve seen this all play out before. J.A. Croson v. Richmond (1989) turned the tide for minority businesses. In that case, the Supreme Court held that the minority set-aside program of Richmond, Virginia, which gave preference to minority business enterprises in awarding municipal contracts, was unconstitutional.
Nationally, before the Croson decision, there were more than 164 state and local government minority procurement programs, according to Anthony Robinson, an attorney with the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund. More than half those programs were dismantled after the Croson decision, he found.
We must refrain from sitting idly by and watching from the sidelines to see if more of these programs are eliminated. This is the moment for advocacy groups such as ours to move front and center. We understand what’s at stake. We must bring awareness to these issues and remind policymakers that the struggle continues. Although we’ve made strides in leveling the playing field, discrimination still exists, and we have a long way to go.
“Historically, in every instance where hard-fought victories for equal rights have been won, our legal vanguard has been called into service as both a shield against powerful reactionary forces and as a sword to slay the remaining vestiges of racism that have for far too long relegated people of color to being mere spectators along the shores of America’s economic mainstream,” said civil rights attorney Franklin Lee, a partner with the Tydings law firm in Baltimore.
Programs and policies exist to assist those businesses that continue to be underutilized. Even with those programs, the wealth gap widens for minority businesses, especially African American businesses. According to the Brookings Institution, “If Black business ownership continues to grow at its current rate (4.72%), it will take 256 years to reach parity with the share of Black people in America.”
The value proposition of using diverse suppliers has not changed. Still, we must ensure that we continue providing an environment where minority businesses can succeed and thrive.
Sharon R. Pinder is president and CEO of the Capital Region Minority Supplier Development Council, serving Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia. It is one of 23 affiliates of the National Minority Supplier Development Council.