Home of affirmative action has to remodel

The late Art Fletcher was the architect of the Philadelphia Plan, a mechanism that the Nixon administration devised to keep angry African-Americans from shutting down construction sites with pickets. The reason for the demonstrations was the discriminatory hiring practices that employers and unions colluded to enforce.  Although blacks paid taxes, they couldn’t get jobs on projects funded by those taxes.

This happened in the turbulent 1960s, just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.   Within a few years, it had become glaringly obvious that voluntary measures would not undo centuries of racism.  So it was left to the conservative Nixon administration to create the first federally-sanctioned affirmative action program for construction employment.

Dr. Frank Greene and other black businessmen worked with Rep. Parren Mitchell to have the policies enshrined into law in the transportation appropriations in the 1980s.

Yet the backlash has been intense, and better financed and organized.

So, in a year when an African-American president could carry Pennsylvania, Philadelphia has had to revisit the very issues that the first Philadelphia plan sought to remedy — the discriminatory barriers that restrain African-American construction employment.

A task force chosen by Mayor Michael Nutter has produced 44 recommendations on how to raise the number of blacks, other minoriites and women in the Philadelphia building trades industry.  It set goals of 32 percent minority hiring and seven percent female hiring.  See story in blackmoney.com.

The recommendations are similar to the steps called for in our annual report, Walls Come Tumbling Down: State of Black Business, sixth edition, which has eight categories of policies which can enhance black entrepreneurship.   It was that Philadelphia plan which became the spur for the great expansion of black self-employment, particularly in construction as working men got the opportunity to translate their skills into ownership.

The impetus came from black mayors to replicate the Philadelphia plan, yet the additional financing needed to create sustainability did not materialize.  Now, we’re right back where we started in construction employment, with blacks under five percent of the construction labor force nationally–less than half their representation in the general labor force.

One of the spurs for Philadelphia was a high murder rate.  Bringing construction jobs back into the city’s neighborhoods has to be part of the strategy for addressing the violence problem as well as other issues such as lack of health insurance.

President Barack Obama, who came to Philadelphia to make his only major speech on race, needs to take heed of the issue of affirmative action and implement a national policy that assures that the most severely impacted groups in this economic downturn get the opportunity to lift themselves up through hard work.

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