Stimulating equity

By Michelle Chen Jun 25, 2009

As the recession rolls on, the federal stimulus package seems more and more like just a drop in the bucket, but even those limited resources are trickling down to an unlevel playing field. The National Black Chamber of Commerce has called on Washington to pay more attention to racial equity as it issues stimulus funding for transportation, accusing the Department of Transportation of violating various civil rights policies. On highway projects, wrote Harry C. Alford of the NBCC, federal authorities have ignored Executive Order 11246, which sets affirmative action guidelines for federal contractor employment, and the Civil Rights Act, resulting in declining representation of Black workers among state agencies and businesses engaged in federal highway projects.

States with 8 percent, 12 percent, 15 percent, etc. Black populations have state transportation departments with less than 5 percent Black employment. In many cases, the number is 3 percent or less. This is not America! You can take a drive on Interstate 80 starting in San Francisco and drive all the way to New Jersey and there is a good chance you will not see one Black working on a freeway construction project. This significant lack of jobs attributes to the higher than average unemployment rate of Blacks. It hurts Black households and encourages hopelessness, crime, poor health and all other indicators of lost value of life. What we have is wholesale discrimination under the official management of the Federal Government…. In essence, there is no compliance with Executive Order 11246, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. We demand that this sad state of affairs be corrected immediately. It has been a long fight but in light of the Stimulus Bill money that is coming down through the above racist channels we must see change and see it now.

Though the statement reflects the interests of one business group, it speaks to underlying tensions surrounding the distribution of stimulus funding. To the extent that the fiscal boost is supposed to shore up local economies, is it also propping up old racial and economic barriers? Glen Ford at Black Agenda Report comments:

If Blacks were shut out before the Obama administration, they would be shut out of the stimulus – it’s as simple as that. Far from ushering in a new era, Obama’s philosophy of governance reinforces the racial status quo which, for Black people at a time of economic crisis, means falling further behind.

The Center for Social Inclusion, which is tracking the progress of stimulus funding in communities of color, has outlined points of concern to keep in mind when following the money:

While the whole country is suffering in this economic downturn, some communities are hurting more than others. Communities of color were worse off before the crisis and were most likely to be victimized by predatory lenders. Because of this, even the most well-intentioned policies could end up harming or leaving out communities of color…. In the construction industry, which will benefit heavily from investment in “shovel ready” projects, men of color and women of all races are significantly under-represented. • Blacks, who make up 11% of the total workforce, only make up 6% of those working on construction. • Latinos, on the other hand, are generally over-represented, but their jobs typically are less skilled, less unionized, pay less and are more dangerous. • Women only hold 3% of construction jobs.

But the road to inclusion doesn’t stop at the construction zone. The ability of the stimulus to offset the worst of the recession depends on whether advocates can steer resources toward socially conscious public investments could yield both jobs and concrete community benefits–like enhancing social service programs and building more progressive infrastructures.

The term “shovel ready” conjures up images of highways and bridges, but investment in public transit options that help connect communities with high rates of unemployment to job centers will create more jobs and longer term benefits to the economy than road repair alone. Public transit investments should go beyond urban centers to benefit rural poor communities and help urban communities reach suburban job centers.

The stimulus package won’t fill the longstanding social deficits that erode underserved communities, but if advocates are vigilant, they could at least make sure the aid trickles down the right way, for once. Image: Wyan Vota (via flickr)