Wasn’t Mended

Wasn’t Mended

by M. Royce Van Tassell
February/March 2001

Five years ago, President Clinton asserted that the time had come to reexamine the federal government’s role in American race relations. Hoping to leave a legacy of racial reconciliation, The Man from Hope launched a year-long dialogue on race. Perhaps, the end of his tenure in office is a good time to examine what that legacy will look like.

One place to start is in the Small Business Adminstration (SBA). The SBA certifies three kinds of businesses as “Small Disadvantaged Businesses” (SDB), and therefore eligible for various federal affirmative action preference programs. As the name implies, every applicant for the SDB program must demonstrate that it is small. The SBA allows a business to demonstrate either social or economic disadvantage.. To qualify as socially disadvantaged, the owner must either be female, black, Native American, Hispanic or Asian American. If a business owner does not belong to one of these groups, the owner can still become a SDB, although he must submit a narrative detailing a personal history of discrimination.

According to the SDB application, this narrative must document “at least one objective feature that has contributed to social disadvantage, such as race, ethnic origin, gender, physical handicap, long-term residence in an environment isolated from the mainstream of American society, or other similar causes not common to individuals who are not socially disadvantaged.” Given that the document’s revision date is March, 1998, three years after the second most memorable phrase of the Clinton era – it seems safe to assume that this definition of disadvantage represents the Clinton administration’s vision of “mend-it, don’t end it.”

While this definition of disadvantage is certainly new, it is also more troubling. First, it is troubling that the Clinton administration has elevated race to an objective fact. Such a notion is reminiscent of by-gone years when racist judges relied on now-discarded “science” to establish objective racial classifications. By 1922, though, the Supreme Court acknowledged that science cannot objectively measure race. If Clinton’s scientists have discovered the key to identifying a person’s race, they sure have done a good job of keeping it a secret.

Second, one has to wonder just how far-reaching this definition is. how does a business know whether it’s “isolated from the mainstream of American society.” Does that include college enterepreneurs? Anyone who goes to school full time, and works more than full time creating the next generation of software that we can’t live without is certainly outside the “mainstream of American society.” What about the militias in Idaho, Montana and Central Utah? Anyone who buries food and guns against the day when the United Nations’; blue helmeted minions come to invoke the “New World Order” is far outside the mainstream of American society. Do they qualify as well?

Actually, it’s pretty clear what “outside the mainstream of American society” means. The Clinton administration is not about to certify college students or militia members as SDB’s. They may have changed the rhetoric describing their preference programs, but they are no differet today. This broader definition casts a wide net so the administration can pander to a wider variety of race advocates. By couching this wider net in terms that aren’t exclusively racial, they can claim to have “mended it,” without actually changing anything.

What then is the Clinton legacy of race relations? Let me suggest the following: “Wasn’t mended, wasn’t ended.”

M. Royce Van Tassell is Director of Research for the American Civil Rights Institute.

Also by M. Royce Van Tassell

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    Copyright © 2001 ACRI. All rights reserved.

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