Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
There was an economic revolution going on during the 1980s and 90s. Or so we thought! Two major pieces of legislation caused this borrowed event. First was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Included in this revolutionary piece was Title VII which dealt with employment equity. Another great feature was Title VI which dealt with business activity that was regulated under the federal government. Title VII created a new well-educated group of Blacks that would become the quite noticeable Black Middle Class through the new avenues of equal employment opportunity. Title VI opened the doors for the new Black business owners who became polished and adept at business acumen. The day of the Black Entrepreneur arrived.
Coupled with the above two phenomena was the ever-growing effect of Black political power, a direct action from the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The tidal wave of new elected Black officials started having results in terms of enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The new class of city/county officials, congresspersons, mayors realized their influence and applied it to procurement laws and programs. Black entrepreneurs were starting to get their share of the government procurement pie. Mayoral giants in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, DC, and dozens of other cities made sure that Black business owners would take advantage of their discretion when it came to winning city and federally funded contracts. Through the Conference of Black Mayors certain new Black owned entrepreneurs began setting up new shops in the cities that had sitting Black mayors. Mayors White of Cleveland, Washington of Chicago, Berry of DC, Young of Detroit and perhaps the greatest of them all, Maynard Jackson of Atlanta put a permanent Black face on urban entrepreneurship.
Meanwhile, in Congress legends such as the great Parren J. Mitchell, Adam Clayton Powell, Gus Savage, John Conyers, Louis Stokes, William Gray, Ron Dellums, Shirley Chisholm, and dozens of others started demanding accountability from federal agencies in the procurement activity. Suddenly, Black business ownership started becoming apparent throughout the land.
White corporate America knew they had to present good performance records when it came to doing business with African American entrepreneurs. It was so important they created their own “watch dog.” IBM, General Motors, and others formed the National Minority Supplier Development Council. Through this organization they would highlight their Title VI activity and “prove” their compliance with the law. “What percentage of Black business makes up your procurement base?” would be the basis of an elected official’s report card. Unlike elected officials, members of the NMSDC just had to show their membership with that group which would seemingly “prove their intent.”
Federal agencies had formal pro-
grams to adhere to such as the Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Program (DBE), the Small Business Administration monitored the “8a Program” which became the most effective use of growing and developing minority owned businesses. Whoops! Did I say minority – not Black? Yes, it wasn’t long before the “wolves” began to find ways to lessen the effect of the activity. The rise of Black business was real and while Black America celebrated and became active in the opportunities, the evil forces also went to work.
Many Black millionaires that evolved through the decade of the 1980s were generated from the 8a program. This growing demographic was not shy about it. Successful Black business owners would proudly become community leaders and creators of Political Action Committees (PACs). They took it for all it was worth.
Eventually, Black Enterprise Magazine grew immensely, and copies were often found on Black families’ coffee tables. The magazine soon started publicizing the “Top 100 List” of Black owned businesses annually. It was rather misleading in that many prudent Black business owners would not participate in this process and/or contest. It wasn’t long before there seemed to be a profound coincidence between leaders on the annual list and trouble with the Internal Revenue Service, among other federal agencies. Being on the BE 100 list may have been a tool for holding much pride but many would later feel it was also a “Target List.”
The USDOT DBE program was doing fine with contracting for Black businesses growing at a steady rate. Then, Congress decided to change the “tables” on Black contractors working on federal highways. White women were forced into the DBE program. Immediately, Black participation started dropping annually. Before this Black contracting on our highways was approaching 10%. Today, that number does not approach 3%. Black business organizations felt betrayed. But the worst was yet to happen.
Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: [email protected].