Chicago mayoral campaign stung by affirmative action scandal

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James Meeks, the state legislator and pastor who is running for Chicago mayor, said some things he probably wishes he could take back. In an interview on radio station WVON, the mayoral hopeful said that only African-Americans should be eligible for city contracts set aside for women and minorities.

“The word ‘minority’ from our standpoint should mean African-American. I don’t think women, Asians and Hispanics should be able to use that title,” he said. “That’s why our numbers cannot improve — because we use women, Asians and Hispanics who are not people of color, who are not people who have been discriminated against.” Later in the day, he tried to backtrack, saying that white women should be excluded: “I don’t believe white women should be considered in that count ….You have white women in the category. They receive contracts. Then, white men receive contracts. Where does that leave everybody else?” he said.

On Thursday, Meeks tried to clarify himself yet again in a written statement, asserting that “all minority -and women-owned businesses” deserve their “fair share” of city contracts. He also pointed to “systemic corruption” in the form of white-owned “fronts” posing as minorities and women who defraud the city program, making blacks the “most under-represented among city contractors.”

Meeks is dead wrong to think that blacks are the only minorities, and the only people facing discrimination. But with that said, he does speak some truths.

The numbers don’t lie. According to the U.S. Census, Chicago’s population is 42 percent white, 36.8 percent black, 26 percent Latino and 4.3 percent Asian. Women are 51.5 percent of the city’s population. Meanwhile, Chicago’s set-aside program reserves 25 percent of municipal contracts for minorities—who make up 58 percent of the population—and 5 percent of city contracts for women—who are over half of the population. Meanwhile, black-owned businesses take a paltry 7 percent cut of the $1 billion city contractor market, down a percentage point from the previous year, which is what prompted Meeks to weigh in on the issue.

This is a scenario that plays itself out in cities throughout the country. It’s a man’s world, as James Brown once said, and especially a white man’s world. An old boys’ network has erected barriers of discrimination for years, preventing racial and ethnic minorities and women from sharing in economic opportunity on an equal footing. There is no question that, like black folks, groups such as Latinos, Asians, Native Americans and others have been historically disadvantaged because they lacked the “right complexion,” and therefore could not get the right connections.

Blacks had slavery and a legacy of Jim Crow, redlining, and a lack of access to capital and economic and educational opportunities. This legacy is felt today in terms of black under-representation in the economy, and predominantly white unions that fail to diversify their membership. We see it today in a black unemployment rate that is double the white rate, in good times and bad. A stark example of the disparities is in New York City, where only one in four black men has a job. And in November, 16.1 percent of African-Americans were out of work in the U.S., as the official national unemployment rate was 9.8 percent.
But as people of color, other minority groups are victims of systemic discrimination as well, and it is hard for them to catch a break. For example, as Wall Street used the U.S. mortgage market as its casino, the home mortgage crisis hit blacks and Latinos twice as hard, with 17 percent of Latino homeowners and 11 percent of blacks losing their homes to foreclosures.

People of color were often steered into fraudulent predatory loans. In recent years, thanks to the subprime loans, both groups witnessed the largest loss of black and Latino wealth in U.S. history, as black borrowers have lost between $72 billion and $93 billion, and Latino borrowers between $76 billion and $98 billion. In addition, with anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment on the rise in America, the nation has experienced an increase in anti-Latino hate crimes. Latino immigrants face a climate of fear in northern states such as New York and Pennsylvania, and hostility and Jim Crow-style exploitation in the South.

Asian-Americans have long been the victims of violence, racism and stereotypes up to the present, and they suffer from discrimination in college admissions and employment in federal agencies. Since 9/11, Muslim-Americans, people of Arab descent and South Asians have endured bias-related harassment and violence, and discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.

And still, women only earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. But at the same time, we must acknowledge the ways in which gender and race work together in this society. White women have benefited indirectly from policies that have shown a preference for white men. “I have friends, plenty of white gals, who are doing very well,” said State Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago). “White women don’t need affirmative action.”

At the same time, white women still face gender discrimination. “Sen. Meeks is wrong. White women, like other women, do face discrimination: the same discrimination facing racial minorities,” said Hedy Ratner of the Women’s Business Development Center. Ratner concluded that any recent progress was “a direct result of affirmative action programs by business and government.” In fact, in numerical terms, white women have been the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action, even though some have opposed such programs against their self-interests.

Plus, Meeks is correct that fraud among government contractors is a big problem that must be addressed. For example, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley awarded $1 billion in contracts in recent years, based on false claims of compliance with a program designed to help women- and minority-owned companies.

In 2008, women and minority-owned firms were paid $20 million less than the city reported, and a number of contracts involved fraudulent businesses and minority fronts actually owned by white men. Similarly, in the New York construction industry, contractors use front companies to evade requirements that they hire a certain percentage of women and minority subcontractors.

If James Meeks wants to wage a serious campaign for mayor of Chicago, he must realize that he cannot win by alienating the 63 percent of the city’s population that is not black. Claiming that African-Americans are the only minorities who face discrimination is factually wrong and bad politics. People of color and women in Chicago and elsewhere deserve a much larger slice of the pie, and should not have to fight over the crumbs. Expand the pie, but don’t pit groups against each other.