According to a recent study, people of color and white women face "extraordinary, perhaps discriminatory'' barriers to landing business contracts with Metro agencies. Despite owning one-fourth of all businesses that bid on projects from 1999-2003, women and minorities received only 8 percent of contract dollars. The other 92 percent went to firms owned by white men.

 

In light of these disparities, changes in procurement procedures are called for. One particular problem is the way in which "relevant experience'' is weighed before a contract is awarded. Although experience matters, it certainly doesn't guarantee quality work, and what qualifies as "relevant experience'' is highly subjective. Not to mention, by preferring those with more experience, larger white male firms, which have had more opportunity in the past (in part because of discrimination against women and folks of color), will continue to reap disproportionate benefits.

 

Access to quality can be blocked

Metro should set clear goals for improving the share of contract dollars going to underutilized companies and should help these firms make connections to the white male firms with which they might partner. Affirmative action is especially important in contracting, because without it, existing "old boy's networks'' are known to block access to companies owned by highly qualified women and folks of color.

For example, in the late '80s, when Richmond's old affirmative action program was ended, the percentage of contract dollars going to minority firms fell from 38 percent to less than 3 percent. As in Metro, there was no evidence that minority firms had done inferior work, or had submitted non-competitive bids. But without the requirement to make affirmative efforts, white male firms fell back into old habits and ended up working only with others like themselves, with whom they felt more "comfortable.'' Although a new program has helped that number rebound a bit, it took a deliberate and concerted effort to make it happen.

Importantly, the benefits of more equitable contracting would extend to more than just minority and women business owners. Research has found that firms owned by minorities tend to hire more people of color than white-male-owned firms, thereby boosting the employment picture for workers of color, and pumping income into communities that sorely need it.

Finally, fairness dictates change. Public projects are financed by us all, including the people of color and white women who have such a hard time getting some of those dollars back in the form of contracts. To allow the current situation to continue would be tantamount to an income redistribution program, in which monies are taken from women and folks of color in the form of taxes, and then showered disproportionately upon white males: a unique form of taxation without (economic) representation. Surely, Metro can and should do better.