According to the Small Business Administration (SBA): “The federal government’s goal is to award at least five percent of all federal contracting dollars to small disadvantaged businesses each year.” Here are the program benefits: “To help provide a level playing field for small businesses owned by socially and economically disadvantaged people or entities, the government limits competition for certain contracts to businesses that participate in the 8(a) Business Development program.”

“Disadvantaged businesses in the 8(a) program can: Compete for set-aside and sole-source contracts in the program. Form joint ventures with established businesses through the SBA’s mentor-protégé program. Receive management and technical assistance, including business training, counseling, market assistance, and high-level executive development programs, as they apply.”

The above program was the brainchild of the late, great Parren J. Mitchell while he was the chair of the House Small Business Committee and his staff, led by National Black Chamber of Commerce board member Anthony W. Robinson. It is, without debate, the most successful minority business program in the history of federal procurement. No formal program has made more Black millionaires than this program. Despite this, it needs to be updated and reinforced.

A 5% minority business goal for the federal government is a pittance. The Black population percentage of our nation is over 14.6% alone. Hispanics have a percentage of 17%. That amounts to 31.6% without other ethnicities. Racism and passive discrimination in this nation still exist and per the U.S. Supreme Court and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 discrimination needs to be addressed according to the disparate impact placed on identified groups.

President Bill Clinton had the answer to this after being encouraged or intimidated by the Million Man March of 1996. His plan to “mend” affirmative action rather than “end” it included formal disparity studies for each of the 10 federal regions. Following that, adjusted goals could be implemented. One big problem — he never did it.

The great HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson applied this logic and took Black procurement at HUD to new heights — approaching 32%. President George W. Bush watched his back as Democratic congressmen tried to have him indicted for whatever reason they could find. HUD does about 4% in Black procurement today. Updating the goals and returning to a serious aura can bring this program back to the effectiveness it once had.

The greatest challenge to the 8(a) program came under the Barack Obama administration. It is so ironic. This president had a mission to “repay” white construction unions for raising over $600 million dollars in his first presidential campaign. His payback to them was to require federal construction contracting over $1 million to become union-only projects. As Blacks and Hispanics are terribly underutilized by construction unions, this would cripple the 8(a) program. We went to the White House and pleaded on the effect this would have to our constituency (should have been his too). They ignored our efforts and quickly became adversarial toward us.

What quickly happened was devastating. The Obama administration went “dark” over the 8(a) program. Black procurement levels at the time George W. Bush left office were over 8%. When Obama finished his two terms it had been reduced to a little over 1%. People, we are talking billions of dollars extracted from our communities. SBA Regional Administrator Ashley Bell spoke at our recent annual conference and emphasized the reduction in Black procurement due to the reduction in active Black 8(a) firms. The same can be said for SBA business loans. It was just devastating and most of the Black community does not know what hit them.

What was particularly “salt in the wounds” was that the SBA under the Obama administration became very hostile toward Black business. At one point, the SBA would reject our emails to them. They took their budgets for funding development grants away from Black associations and tossed them around to non-Black groups. How could Blacks do this to other Blacks in the 21st century?

We must encourage the White House and federal agencies to quickly pick up the pieces and bring the 8(a) program back to life and with vigor and updated goals. A federal election is coming in 2020. It is time for Blacks to address each political candidate with that great quote from Chaka Khan — “What Cha’ Gonna Do for Me.”

Alford is co-founder, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. DeBow is co-founder and executive vice president of the chamber.

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