When Chico Marx asked, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” he could have been speaking for officials behind Buffalo’s construction boom.
As jobs and wealth get created, some activists insist that black businesses and workers are being shut out of the boom. In a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo last month, they call for a commission to investigate employment practices in the medical corridor, and how well schools are preparing graduates for the jobs there.
“If cultures of unfair hiring, firing and promotion practices” are uncovered, they want the governor to put the full weight of his office behind a remedial strategy to rectify inequities.
As issues go in Buffalo, this is an oldie but goodie. Complaints about black businesses and workers being shut out of construction projects are as old as the construction business itself.
So what makes them think it will be different now?
“I don’t know that I think it will be different, but I’m hopeful it will be different. It has to be,” said the Rev. George Nicholas, pastor of Lincoln Memorial/Metropolitan United Methodist Churches, one of the four signatories.
“It’s not a sustainable model to have a community as big as the black community in Buffalo and have it be in such deplorable condition,” Nicholas said. “This has to be different.”
But the Cuomo administration insists that, despite appearances, it already is.
The state awarded 21 percent of its business – $1.4 billion worth – to firms owned by minorities or women last year, exceeding its 20 percent goal, said Alphonso David, the governor’s deputy secretary for civil rights. The goal also applies to the Buffalo Billion, and contractors here are meeting their obligations, he said.
Yet it’s a common refrain in the community and on talk radio that blacks are not getting work commensurate with their numbers.
“We just don’t see that kind of participation,” said Richard Cummings, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce of Western New York, and another signatory, along with former WUFO Radio host Ted Kirkland and Ed Wiley of 100 Mighty Men Ministry.
To make their case, Nicholas points to the “eye test,” observing job sites and how few African-Americans appear to be on them. He said the group also has been talking with sources inside the medical corridor who detail how black professionals are treated and the number who have left. And he recalled a meeting at which pastors of some of Buffalo’s largest black churches were asked how many had congregants working in the medical corridor, and “not one raised their hand.”
The feedback generated by the letter and radio discussions that led up to it indicate that the four have tapped into something that’s still simmering despite years of complaints.
A Cuomo spokesman said they had no record of receiving the letter, dated March 6. Nicholas said it was sent by certified mail. But clearly the disconnect between government and the people it represents extends far beyond the missing missive.
They want a meaningful dialogue not just with Cuomo, but with the business community. That’s the only way to deal with an issue that, by virtue of the very hoopla surrounding the Buffalo Billion, won’t fade away this time.
After all, it’s going to be hard to use statistics to paper over what people see with their own eyes.