Black Leaders Should Not Walk Out On Trump

This week the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) declined Donald Trump’s invitation to meet and that was a mistake. I can’t name ten black people who like Donald Trump but the businessman is still the president. Until that changes, the CBC should get back to the negotiation table in order to sit down and discuss some serious business with our embattled leader. This conversation is about cash.

America despises the idea of blacks on welfare and the notion of reparations offends the very core of whiteness, but right now - today - there is an active way of doing fair and honorable business with blacks and other minority communities that will elevate and - most of all - enrich thousands. That is why, despite all his troubles, the CBC should eagerly accept the invite from the businessman/POTUS to sit down and talk money. The demand must be dollars - not platitudes.

Trump offends the natural instincts of most black political thinkers on everything from education policy to his handling of the State Department. We could even talk about his response to Islamic extremism, but a more vicious form of economic terrorism ravages black communities daily - and has for decades.

In fiscal year 2016, for example, the federal government awarded over $470 billion to private companies in the form of government contracts, procuring massive amounts of goods and services that created jobs and wealth.  However, according to the Federal Procurement Data System, only 1.8% of those dollars were awarded to black owned companies. Such companies could obviously produce excellent work, but they are routinely left out of deals, and discussions and ignored by “old-boy” networks where information - like cash - is king.

The problem of being left-out also exists at the state, county and municipal levels. In fiscal 2016, New York City awarded over 95% of its $15.3 billion in contracts to companies owned by white men, despite the fact the majority of the city’s residents are non-white.

Black companies are not receiving an equitable share of multi-billions of dollars and that reality deeply damages their ability to expand and hire workers of every stripe. Despite the enormous taxes flowing from black people to help fund government contracts, we are largely being left out, receiving scant returns. A smart and strong response on this specific issue from Trump could actually make a significant financial and social impact on American society at a time when he needs a win, as do millions of hardworking and worthy minorities and women.

When black companies are deprived of public resources, black communities suffer. Black unemployment has always been twice that of whites. The average black household would need 228 years to amass the same level of wealth as their white counterparts. Seldom discussed is how governments exacerbate these disparities with their destructive contracting practices. A variety of strong companies - big and small - are needed to provide a sturdy middle class, jobs and ultimately more widespread wealth.

And yet, black companies are routinely excluded at every possible level. Black people cannot continue to contribute to the tax base, only to enrich others. The Trump administration has an opportunity to do something right, equitable and historical; the matter is urgent. When unemployment is compounded by a de facto apartheid in government contracting, communities are unstable and often ignite.

Baltimore and Ferguson ignited in 2014 in riots and protests. While police killings of blacks lit both situations, it is undeniable that immense disparities in employment and other economic indicators helped fuel the fire. Both cities are over 60% black. While black unemployment is double that of whites nationally, according to the American Community Survey, between 2011 and 2015, Baltimore and St. Louis County (where Ferguson lies) had local black unemployment rates about three times that of whites.

Between 2007 and 2012, Baltimore paid out close to $2 billion in contracts to firms for a variety of goods and services. In a city over 60% black, less than 10% of that wealth pie was served to black owned companies. If just 30% of those dollars went to black owned companies in those years before the uprising, close to $400 million would have been available to those firms to expand and hire locally.

Baltimore’s leadership was at least aware of the numbers and started pursuing changes. St. Louis County’s sickness was more severe. Leading up to the local protests in 2014, the County did not even track procurement data by race or gender. There was no way to know if businesses owned by women or minorities were getting their fair share from the County. Black business owners around Ferguson were contributing to the tax base, but most likely fared worse than their counterparts in Baltimore. In both, majority black locales, black people were locked out of economic opportunities which their tax dollars created.

This is the great discrimination of our day and the most immediate case for a style of reparations that would be equitable. Solving the problem will require governments at every level to function differently. It will require political will, as Montgomery County, Maryland developed. Having been made aware of possible discrimination in procurement, the County Executive appointed a Director of Procurement to pursue creative solutions, like breaking larger contracts into smaller ones, which allows women and minority-owned companies to compete more favorably.

Solving the problem will also require a willingness to confront the ugly truth, as St. Louis County is doing. Elected in 2015, County Executive Steve Stenger prioritized a disparity study so the County would know the depth of the problem. The study is due this summer and for that, the new administration in Missouri should be praised.

President Trump must set the national tone on this issue, sending a strong, uplifting message coast to coast. This could provide the businessman POTUS with a positive, unique and historical legacy, making sure all cultures have a fair chance at participating in governmental commerce. The CBC must push him to this.

As the President leads on this issue, the CBC could organize local legislators to follow, fueling local economic development. In an ideal world, every black organization - and countless multi-cultural groups - would have this high on their list of political priorities and hold businesses and elected representatives accountable for moving the needle toward enriching all communities.  

Interest groups nationwide must wrestle with how they deal with President Trump on a litany of issues. Black voters must use their considerable might to deal directly with him and to demand action on equitable access to the billions in the national procurement pot. As we move with great political power toward the testy 2018 midterms, black voters must remember that cash rules everything and insist on monetary returns from whoever can provide them. This is how the CBC should lead in this hour of Trump.