Affirmative Action: Once a Great Notion, Now a Tool of Corruption

The idea of formal rules for the economic treatment of minorities originally had to do with employment, starting in 1961 under President John F. Kennedy with Executive Order 10925.

The idea was really for the federal government to set an example. If you were a federal agency or contractor, you had to do more than prove you didn't actively discriminate. You had to demonstrate that you actively hired minorities and women.

After the race riots of the late 1960s, the concept infiltrated the world of federal contracting. If it was right for the government to promote diversity and equal opportunity in jobs, why not do the same for the development of minority- and women-owned business enterprises?

Now we have a kind of general cultural expectation that all government entities and maybe even major private companies operate under at least a social obligation, if not a legal one, to set aside a certain amount of work for minority- and women-owned businesses.

And today in Dallas, our only daily newspaper has a pretty-good-OK story about minority contracting and all the corruption problems we've had with it -- city council and plan commission members sent off to the pokey, now another big FBI investigation of the county's longest tenured black elected official.

I say it's pretty much OK, because it's not great. The story does what all daily newspaper journalism does these days: It stays about a mile away from the punch line, which is this: Maybe it was a good idea in its time, but maybe we need to think about ditching the whole thing now.

It's not a simple question. Scratch the surface of most successful minority-owned enterprises, and somewhere back at the get-go you'll find some government contracts obtained under an affirmative action program -- contracts that helped get them going. So what's bad about that?

Clearly what's bad about it is creating an expectation and an assumption that set-asides are the only way minority business people can get business. I think back to testimony in the 2009 Dallas City Hall corruption trial, talking about Darren Reagan, a defendant who was proprietor of a phony labor union.

Reagan had approached an African-American wrought-iron contractor about being the front man on a minority contract. He explained to him that everything would be set up for him by "some white boys" and that he could "hire some Mexicans" to do all the actual work.

The black contractor said no. He said he would have to stand by any work done under his name no matter who did it, and he made it plain that if it was contract, he would be the guy who did the work.

I think of another example from the inland port scandal, now a prime focus of the ongoing FBI Dallas corruption probe. Richard Allen, main developer of a huge shipping and warehousing center in southern Dallas, told me -- and County Commissioner John Wiley Price later confirmed -- that Price had made a special demand of him.

Allen's company at that time was based mainly in California. Price demanded that Allen supply him with the minority certification certificates for all of his subcontractors in California, where Allen was a major warehouse developer.

Allen told Price he didn't have any subs who had such certificates. Price accused him of being a racist and using only white subcontractors. Allen told him no, that virtually all of his subcontractors were Hispanic, because virtually all of the construction trades in his part of California were populated by Hispanics.

Allen told me Price said that if Allen's subs were minorities, they had to have minority certification. Allen told Price that his Hispanic subs were not really minorities where he lived and operated in California. They were the majority. He, Allen, the white guy, was the minority, and his subs didn't get minority certification because it was paperwork and government crap to them. They just got the jobs and did the work.

I'm not conflating the Hispanic experience here with African-American experience. I know they're different.

But one thing is the same. The existence of set-aside programs confirms the worldview of a Darren Reagan, not the worldview of the wrought-iron guy who wanted nothing to do with him. Reagan assumed that it was a good thing for minority business people to get good money for no work. The other guy had no such belief.

In the first place, I got the distinct impression from the testimony that the wrought-iron guy took a sniff of Reagan and smelled crooked. Some people know there isn't enough wrought-iron work on earth to be worth years in the stir. They're just smart that way.

But I also got the distinct impression the wrought-iron guy was proud of his work. Proud of working, proud of being his own man, proud of taking his own two hands and wringing a living from this sorry Earth.

So when do we get an executive order promoting his idea?

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze