by James A. Bacon
The Dulles Rail project plods inexorably forward. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has issued a Request for Qualifications Information (RFQI) to solicit qualifications statements from potential bidders on the 11.5-mile rail line. Companies who submit applications will be narrowed down to a short list of five firms. The contract will be awarded to the team that meets the technical requirements at the lowest price.
While MWAA has abandoned its pro-Project Labor Agreement methodology for selecting bidders, it does set a goal of sub-contracting at least 14% of the total contract value to Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs). DBEs are defined as firms that are at least 51% owned and controlled by “one or more socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.” (See the DBE goal here.)
Here’s the question of the day: How many of the DBEs who participated in Phase 1 were truly “disadvantaged”? Dulles Transit Partners published a list of its DBE firms here (go to page 8).
While DBE putatively is aimed at socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, it has evolved into a racial/gender spoils system. You will not find any “socially and economically disadvantaged” white people — someone who grew up in an Appalachian trailer park, say — qualifying as a DBE.
To my mind, the only group in a Virginia context that can be reasonably thought of as disadvantaged is African-Americans. Their ancestors were slaves, many of them lived through the Jim Crow era and many today remain disadvantaged by discrimination against their forebears. That’s not the case for all African-Americans living here in Virginia — clearly there is a strong and growing African-American middle and professional class — but enough of them can be considered disadvantaged that I’m willing to go along.
I don’t think of Hispanics as disadvantaged. Poor, perhaps. Disadvantaged, no. Maybe Hispanics were subject to vile laws and discrimination in other states but their arrival in Virginia in meaningful numbers dates back only 20 or 30 years. I’m sorry, but migrating to Virginia as a poor Hispanic person within the past generation does not make you any more disadvantaged than being born as a poor white person. (If you think speaking with a Hispanic accent subjects you to invidious stereotypes, try speaking with an Appalachian twang.)
It is absurd to think of South Asians, Koreans or Chinese as disadvantaged. If anything, these ethnic groups are privileged. Here in Virginia, they tend to be better educated and to enjoy higher incomes than whites.
As for women, we can argue about the corporate glass ceiling all day long. But can anyone seriously make a case that women are disadvantaged as small business persons? In a related question, how many of the “woman owned” enterprises designated as DBEs are owned by husband-wife teams in which the wife owns 51% and the husband owns 49%?
From eyeballing the Dulles Transit Partners list, I would guesstimate that half the DBE enterprises are Hispanic, with a significant number of Asians like Mr. Sohi pictured above. Are we expected to buy into the fiction that Mr. Sohi, who apparently emigrated from India to the U.S. with an engineering degree, qualifies as “disadvantaged”? C’mon. Of the rest of the DBEs on the list, a majority are women. Some of those women may be African-American, but I’d be willing to wager that most are white.
The DBE program is a farce, a racial-gender spoils system that is only marginally effective at creating opportunities for the one group — native-born African-Americans — that has a legitimate claim in Virginia to being socially and economically disadvantaged. But the DBE program is so deeply rooted that no one ever questions it. To do is is to risk being branded a racist or misogynist.
Post script. I’m not ragging on MWAA here. MWAA is following the law. All state and federally funded projects require DBE participation.