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More white women than minorities are benefiting from affirmative action

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last fall hiked the state’s goal for contracting with minority and women business enterprises from 20 percent to 30 percent, it seemed an aggressive effort to close racial gaps.

Instead, the fine print has some minority business advocates wondering if they could be squeezed out. Their concern? An asterisk noting projects may use “any combination of MBE and WBE to meet the overall 30% goal.”

That language plays into a fear that affirmative action – a phrase traced to John F. Kennedy’s 1961 executive order targeting racial bias – has evolved to primarily benefit white females.

The state’s numbers for Erie County, in one sense, bear that out. In its tally covering Jan. 1, 2011, to Jan. 21 of this year, firms owned by white women won 56 percent of the $475 million in work. That’s an increase over the 48 percent of $146 million they got from 2007 to 2010.

By both dollar amount and percentage, white females are now getting a bigger slice of the pie than before.

On the other hand, when measured against their share of the market, white females come up short. While they get 56 percent of the work, they account for 64 percent of the certified companies.

Figures like that have some insisting that the solution is for more minorities to get certified instead of just griping.

But the numbers of certified firms also reflect another reality: White females can take title to a company started by a husband, brother or father. As one critic put it, white males “can easily turn a company over to a female relative, but they can’t turn minority.”

Against that backdrop, the fear is that using combined goals means the numbers for minorities will worsen. It’s an approach being used, for instance, to reconstruct the plaza at the Cave of the Winds in Niagara Falls, where the request for proposals outlined goals of 17 percent for women and 13 percent for minority businesses before also including the “any combination” language.

A state official called the language “standard” and said it is not as ominous as it seems because goals legally have to be related to the availability of female and minority contractors, which varies by industry. It also can vary depending on how many actually respond to an RFP. He said contractors must prove “due diligence” in seeking minority firms, and state agencies follow up with minority companies to see if they actually were contacted.

Only after all of that is done are final goals set for each contract, he said, adding that the administration tightened up contract language three years ago to increase accountability.

Still, the numbers speak for themselves when it comes to who benefits most from affirmative action.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a longtime MWBE advocate, knows of many legitimate female firms, but also is aware of the suspicion that white men have transferred businesses to female relatives to game the system.

One answer is more scrutiny of the certification process, she said, noting the new state budget includes seven more workers to help with that. Another is for more minorities to get certified.

The state is to complete a new disparity study by August 2016 to set updated goals. But unless those other changes occur, the numbers under new goals may not look any better for minority businesses than they do now.