Why you don’t see black people on local construction projects

Back in the 1980s, I had the opportunity to work in city government in the City of Syracuse’s Office of Minority Affairs. The goal of that office was to increase the capacity of minority businesses to take part in publicly funded projects that required Minority Business Enterprise Participation. MWBE participation targets minority and woman owned businesses for subcontracting work.

It was a tumultuous time and across the nation, ordinances enacted during the previous decade were deemed “unconstitutional” by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Richmond decision. White-owned businesses argued that it was unfair to make them “give” business to “the minorities.”

In Richmond, the Supreme Court forced municipalities to prove that a pattern of discrimination existed in the affected marketplace. In Syracuse, Knowledge Systems & Research conducted the study and determined that a pattern of discrimination does exist in the Syracuse/Onondaga County area.

Some of the biggest names in Central New York construction lined up to say how this Minority Business Enterprise Ordinance is expensive and drives up the cost of public projects. Sound familiar? Think Pioneer Development and their complaints about “strings” like minority inclusion on the convention center hotel project.

In meetings at the Common Council Chambers at Syracuse’s City Hall, I witnessed grown black men cry when describing numerous attempts at doing business on mandated projects, only to be told that their price was too high or their company was “not experienced enough” to work such a project. Many of these men died clutching dreams of being larger than they were allowed to become.

If mandated goals were not attached to the construction project, minority business opportunities were down to zero. When mandated goals were removed, projects became white only.

Mayor Tom Young assembled a staff of people to handle the administration of the City’s MWBE Program. This happened after City Hall’s publicized firing Office of Minority Affairs Director Oscar McKenzie, who refused to certify a business as minority-owned when asked to by his superiors.

The Office of Minority Affairs, now led by George A. Kilpatrick Jr., aggressively went after companies that refused to provide the opportunity for participation. George and his staff sat down with both minority and majority businesses in an attempt to make something positive happen.

However, something happened on the way to goal attainment suddenly the Office of Minority Affairs took on tasks that were unrelated to the mission of minority business goal attainment. The Mayors Minority Affairs Advisory Council was set up and George was its staff.

The Jerry Rescue Monument and Syracuse Juneteenth Celebration consumed staff time making sure the design for the “freed slave” monument was just right and the black community was “on board.” And of course we had to make sure we included the Texas flag as part of the Junteenth celebration – Texas blacks missed the note that said they were free.

The original Juneteenth, which began at Southwest Community Center, didn’t gather traction until the City of Syracuse dedicated resources. Syracuse’s blacks, many of whom had migrated from the south in the mid-1950s, never celebrated the late arrival of freedom.

Alabama, Florida, and the Carolinas were the places most Syracuse blacks called home. Between 1955 and 1970 Auburn, Ala. lost a considerable number of its black population to Syracuse. In Syracuse we learned about Harriet Tubman because she lived up the street in Auburn and she worshipped and joined Bethany Baptist Church here in Syracuse.

So, here we are years later and minority businesses are in worse condition today than they ever were. The City of Syracuse list, which once contained over 100 minority contractors, has now been reduced to a few black-owned businesses participating in the reinvention of Central New York.

Steve Coker and the new generation minority contractors wanted to gut Syracuse’s MBE Ordinance based on advise reportedly from a law firm that specializes in defending Fortune 500 companies against discrimination law suits including clients such as Enron.

We had the opportunity to change the city when we were at the Office of Minority Affairs and we did. Syracuse’s Juneteenth celebration and the Jerry Rescue Monument were held as shining successes of the black community. However, when we now look at the condition of our minority contractors, it’s clear to me that the Office of Minority Affairs accomplished only two of three goals.

The Jerry Rescue Monument and Syracuse Juneteenth: Two monuments to an enslaved past and a decimated local black construction industry. As I recall, those freeing Jerry are pointing north, beyond the Carousel Mall, toward freedom and opportunity and those uninformed in Texas continued serving their masters until they were told the good news: “Y’all free!”