By Charles Griggs
“Systems are perfectly designed to achieve the results they are achieving right now. At first glance, when we look at how dysfunctional existing systems can be, this premise seems absurd.” – David Peter Stroh
Our national economy is barreling ahead, but at the same time millions of people are being left behind. Poverty and unemployment rates are down, but these indicators mask the financial tightrope that many working families walk every day. Because of a strong and steady stock market and relatively low unemployment rates, people tend to lose focus on the fact that there are pockets of the economy that are still struggling.
Locally, Jacksonville has paid little attention to the indicators that tell the real story of economic opportunity and the damage caused by neglect. The lack of progress can be traced back decades, but we can also look back to the late 90s when minority set asides were targeted for destruction. Once dismantled, the floodgates were open for the “good ole boy” system to reestablish itself without the burden of those “unnecessary” minority business programs.
In fact, when quotas went away they said it would be better for Black-owned businesses.
Has it been? It’s hard to tell.
Some might say the ambiguity is on purpose. There is no real data that explains the success or failure of Jacksonville’s Black-owned businesses. The last attempt at trying to understand the true landscape of these economic drivers was in 2013 when the City of Jacksonville commissioned its Multi-Jurisdictional Disparity Study. The result was recommendations that concluded the City of Jacksonville should do more to level the playing field for small and minority businesses (surprise, surprise).
While the intent maybe there, doing “more” to assist Black-owned businesses can be subjective. It seems that setting goals as a standard for the inclusion of minority businesses is, as they say, “a no-no,” which makes it easier for Blacks to be left behind. Thereby creating barriers for those who dwell on the outer edges of economic opportunity. And when that happens, we miss the chance to improve conditions for people to provide for their families and build better communities.
Given that African Americans make up 30 percent of Jacksonville’s population, it is imperative that the city addresses the harsh economic realities facing its most vulnerable taxpayers. In order to break the cycle, we must address the system that created it with a sense of urgency and purpose. Policy is one way to provide opportunities and level the playing field, but course correction should come with a bigger want and higher motivation.
If we are going to guide Black-owned businesses to a real place at the table, those benefiting from the current system must be willing to risk engaging at a higher level. For example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sent a clear message that 30 percent of all State contracting would go to minorities and women owned businesses. One of the high profile outcomes of this effort includes an $8 billion award to McKissack & McKissack, a black-owned construction management company, to oversee the John F. Kennedy Airport Terminal One Expansion Project. Not only is this a tremendous opportunity for a Black-owned business, but it speaks volumes about New York’s commitment to addressing diversity and inclusion.
And while McKissack & McKissack is a more than capable firm, the stakes are high for those betting on their success.
Currently, according to the most recent City of Jacksonville disparities study, there are no Black-owned businesses in the area capable of shouldering a prime position on a major project such as an airport expansion. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Successful business owners who have benefited at the trough of local contracting should see the bigger picture for the community and work to create ways to help grow Black-owned businesses. And while policy can be a way forward, it is not the complete answer.
Civil rights icon Andrew Young believed that the growth of Atlanta’s African American upper and middle class came as result of convincing the powerful elite (banks, government procurement executives and policy-makers) that they would make more money by being inclusive of Blacks. And so it went.
Thinking big to grow Black-owned businesses will take more than policy commitments and set-asides. It will take the will of those who have the ability to be audacious with their attempts to close Jacksonville’s economic gaps.
This article originally appeared in the Jacksonville Free Press.