The School Board is the only local government body to set specific goals for working with black contractors, Latino contractors and Asian contractors. The city, county and other agencies look only at whether a firm is minority-owned or white-owned.
The initiative gets predictably mixed reviews, given that contracting is fiercely competitive. Everybody’s got an angle.
“This is something to be proud of,” says Paul King, chairman of UBM, Inc., one of the city’s largest black-owned contracting firms. Many large, white-owned firms are anti-black, he says, and they tend to rely on Latino-owned firms to fulfill minority quotas whenever possible. “This subverts that process” and gives black firms a shot at the work, says King.
On the other hand, HACIA, a group which represents Latino contractors, has lobbied against the subgoals for specific ethnic groups. “The majority [white] community sees [affirmative action] goals as a ceiling for minority participation,” says Miguel Descoto, HACIA’s executive director. “We see them as a floor. And subgoals are treated as a ceiling within a ceiling.”
Currently, the School Board is exceeding its subgoals for Latino-owned firms.
Even with the subgoals, minority women still fall through the cracks, says Sally Johnson, president of Chicago Architectural Windows, a black-owned, woman-owned business. There are no minority goals for women contractors and no female goals for minority firms. As a result, she says, “We’re invisible. When a company wants a woman-owned firm, they don’t call me; they call the white girls. When a company wants a minority firm, they don’t call me; they call the guys.”
However, the board makes no ethnic-group distinctions when it looks at the use of minority workers on construction projects. That omission rankles activists like Sokoni Karanja, director of Centers for New Horizon, a Bronzeville-based community group. Karanja says that whites and Latinos dominate the work crews he sees in his mostly-black neighborhood; to add insult to injury, he says, the crews are sometimes loud and obnoxious, waking up residents with profanity. He wonders how long a black crew would survive if they acted the same way on a school site in nearby Bridgeport.
“We do ask the contractors to be sensitive to the neighborhood when they’re hiring their crew,” says Ernie Williams, a compliance officer in the board’s affirmative action bureau. “But there isn’t much we can do about it.”
Board contractors currently report that 51.3 percent of all work-hours have been clocked by minority workers, and 3.1 percent have been clocked by women workers.