Friday, July 9, 2010

The business of race and sex

From the 12 July 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

Over six months into the current session, both houses and the Governor were still at an impasse over advancing the legislation necessary to make ends meet. Yet, amidst that mess and the related financial nightmare, they still found time to play politics and pass bills that give advantages and accommodations to minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs). In a press report dated July 2, the Senate boasted of new rules that would ensure so-called fairness in contracting, emphasize the supposed importance of sex and race in state procurement functions and grant privilege to MWBEs when delving into the state’s Small Business Revolving Loan Fund.

It’s obvious that the Senate and Assembly must still think we’re living in the 1960s, back when the significant social changes brought about by the civil rights and women’s lib movements may have fostered a temporary need for MWBE legislation to aid in accessing the markets. Those days are long gone. The legislators need only look amongst their ranks to see that played out: We have a black governor (Paterson) and Senate leader (John Sampson) in our state while, nationally, a woman is third in charge (Nancy Pelosi), another ran for vice-president in the last election (Sarah Palin) and, above all, we have an president in Barack Obama who is one-half African American.

Those advances in social understanding, and the widespread acceptance of leaders who may look different than the “old white guys” of days gone by (something readily apparent in the private sector as well), show that America’s days as a heavily sexist and racist nation are behind us. Despite that, the government still advances MWBE legislation, an insult to the concept of fairness, the very thing the lawmakers promote.

Let’s start with the concept of government lending. The Senate is rewording the language of the taxpayer-funded loan program to focus on women and minorities based on the assumption that they have had difficulty in accessing traditional credit markets. It makes one wonder if the legislature has picked up a newspaper in the past two years. Because of the global financial collapse, everyone has had problems acquiring loans. It has nothing to do with skin tone and everything to do with the business. And, it’s the concept of business the Senators obviously don’t understand: What if a white male has an extraordinary idea that would solve the energy crisis and he can’t get a loan because the state would prefer to give it to a female who wants to open a gift shop? It’s a far-fetched example, but it shows the disconnect.

Next, there’s the matter of government purchasing. The resultant impairment – not betterment – of fairness via MWBE rules ends up hurting the working class as a whole by granting preference to certain companies. Because a woman is at the helm of a contracting firm, does that make her firm any more worthwhile than the next? In most cases the make-up of her workforce is no different in terms of diversity than that of a company owned by a white male. Then, what if she is awarded a contract based on her sex yet pays her workers a sub-standard wage and benefits? Who wins?

What about a firm owned by a white male that employs an above average number of minorities? If MWBE laws are all about diversity and equality, shouldn’t his firm get as fair a shake as (if not preference over) a minority-owned firm that employs an average or below average population of minorities? I quite often think of this when participating in the bidding process for projects for the government and larger corporations (which have fallen into the government’s trap). Judging by the questionnaires we must fill out, it’s obvious that ownership is, frankly, a little too Caucasian and manly to get a fair consideration, even though our minority employment is typically 12 to 15 percent, well above the non-white population in Niagara County (10 percent) and, especially, our home base of North Tonawanda (2.1 percent).

If the government wanted fairness and diversity to actually mean something, they should focus on factors such as that. But, I don’t want them to. The government should stop using racism and sexism to beat perceived racism and sexism and let everyone - man, woman, white, black – fairly bid on contracts and see them rewarded to businesses based solely on free market ideals (simply put: quality, price and service) and not for the skin tone or reproductive organs of their owners.

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