Business As Usual Now Means Minority Inclusion

July 28, 2003
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The city of Grand Rapids will phase out its Minority and Women Business Enterprise program over the next five months in favor of a program free of race and gender requirements. It is true that the city’s reasoning is a direct result of recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and a growing number of legal challenges to such programs across the country.

It’s also true that on the two previous occasions in which the city measured minority- and women-owned business participation in public projects as sub-contractors, minority participation dropped measurably. Both studies were tied to modifications of the city program because of court decisions. Program director Ingrid Scott-Weekley is understandably concerned that the past will repeat itself.

The greater Grand Rapids business community, the majority of which is small to mid-sized and privately owned, follows the natural course of business as usual. When a local business owner looks for help, a supplier, advice or vendor, it is very usual to call who they know. We would emphasize that such practices are not deliberately racially motivated or in any way mean-spirited. It is customary and usual. Therein are the problems, and the reason the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, downtown Rotary and other institutions have provided the “Healing Racism” forums and gone to great pains to publish a minority business directory.

The profile of Gail Harrison in Inside Track this week further underscores the ongoing, current problems associated with these very real issues. Harrison recalled her presentation to a Holland Area Chamber of Commerce meeting. She began by inviting those members of the nearly all-white audience who wanted to be treated as an African American to stand. None stood.

She further points out, as has been noted frequently on these pages, that larger firms (like Ford Motor Co.) deliberately look for suppliers and vendors that have demonstrated diversity.

This week, Grand Rapids Business Journal publishes a letter to the editor in response to a report in the July 21 issue. Associated Builders and Contractors Executive Vice President John Doherty noted that assuming minority and women-owned participation will drop on public — or all — projects is unfair to this community. “You have done a disservice to those of us who seek to move the community to a new era free of labels … a marketplace that is attempting to be based upon opportunity, readiness and success.” Doherty also acknowledges some frustration in the challenges of advancing equal opportunities.

The ABC goal is certainly as praiseworthy as any of the aforementioned programs or requirements, more so if the professional association also monitors women and minority participation and area sub-contracting work. But the fact remains, as Harrison said, that the business community must do more than talk about it or intellectualize it. As Doherty writes, it’s time to just do it, though it’s not as easy as calling a friend or acquaintance — or business as usual.

It’s past time to get out of the usual box, because another fact is that everybody will be watching.           

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