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Including blacks, women in city's economic future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last month, when the Greater Baltimore Committee revealed an economic vision for the region at its annual meeting, it stressed the need for all of Baltimore's citizens to participate in the development of life sciences, improved education and greater entrepreneurism as keys to future prosperity.

Last week, when officials met with downtown professionals and executives to discuss the city's recently released 20-year vision strategy for downtown, they, too, stressed the need for the city's black population to participate in Baltimore's continued renaissance.

Inclusiveness, which has been adopted as the buzzword for these efforts, seems to be bandied about as much as the "V" word in these visionary days.

Yet at both meetings, there were precious few blacks in the audience. And in a city that is 60 percent black, inclusiveness is hard to find in many offices and professional settings.

In this context, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke raised at least these eyebrows when he used his speech before the GBC meeting as a platform to aggressively promote greater economic opportunities for blacks and women. Keep in mind here that the mayor was speaking to many of the executives whose past decisions are responsible for the relative lack of minority executives in area firms.

"The time is past for delaying and debating the question of opening up Baltimore's development to minorities and women," the mayor said.

"Now it's time for action -- the kind of action we're just beginning to see at Inner Harbor East, the University of Maryland Medical Systems and the Christopher Columbus Center. The developers all three projects have committed themselves to a fair representation of minorities and women."

Such standards, he urged, should be applied throughout the private sector, including professional services as well as traditional purchasing and construction contracts.

In addition, he issued a "challenge" to the GBC to "study and draft a report on minority and women businesses in Baltimore. . . . A comprehensive report, like the one I'm suggesting, will take us a long way toward being a fully inclusive economy."

The mayor repeated the theme two weeks ago when the downtown strategy report was released, saying, "Minorities and women businesses cannot be left with their faces pressed up against the window pane of downtown development."

In an interview last week, the mayor said he has been raising the issue in light of the large commitments to minority firms in the three visible development projects. "I felt that this was the time to encourage others to make the same type of commitment," he said.

Following the GBC meeting, the mayor said, he attended a meeting with GBC officials and repeated his request for a study of minority business here. "They said they'd get back to me," he recalled, and that's where matters now stand.

Thomas Chmura, a GBC deputy director, said the group's life sciences report begins the process the mayor is discussing. "We've said as clearly as the GBC has ever said that the issues of inclusion in the economy and the issues of minorities and women in business are very crucial," Mr. Chmura said.

"The kinds of issues the mayor raised are the kinds of issues raised in the [life sciences] report that we have to deal with," he said, adding that the GBC is forming a more precise strategy, "but we're not there yet."

The perceived need for a study of how blacks and women are faring in Baltimore's economy rests on the lack of good information on the subject and the assumption that these groups are not faring well economically.

On a state level, Maryland has the heaviest concentration of minority-owned companies in the nation, according to a study by the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development. However, this finding apparently does not equate with relative prosperity for black-owned companies in Baltimore, according to the mayor.

Turning the issue around, I've never heard any expert say that minority business was thriving here. Likewise, I've never heard anyone say that black and female managers and executives were present in relatively high numbers in Baltimore.

Overall employment patterns continue to show large spreads between white and black unemployment rates here. It's important to keep in mind that the unemployment rate doesn't count people who've stopped looking for work. (So, if someone thinks that the reason black unemployment rates are so high is because lots of blacks simply don't look for work, someone is wrong.) In Baltimore, here is what black and white unemployment rates looked like during the 1980s:

Year .. .. .. .. .. Black .. .. .. .. .. White

1980 .. .. .. .. .. 14.0% .. .. .. .. ... 7.1%

1981 .. .. .. .. .. 19.1 .. .. .. .. .. ..6.9

1982 .. .. .. .. .. 20.2 .. .. .. .. .. .11.9

1983 .. .. .. .. .. 17.1 .. .. .. .. .. . 8.1

1984 .. .. .. .. .. 12.7 .. .. .. .. .. . 5.9

1985 .. .. .. .. .. 16.6 .. .. .. .. .. ..3.8

1986 .. .. .. .. .. 11.8 .. .. .. .. .. ..6.0

1987 .. .. .. .. .. 13.7 .. .. .. .. .. ..4.0

1988 .. .. .. .. .. 14.5 .. .. .. .. .. ..5.4

1989 .. .. .. .. .. 11.9 .. .. .. .. .. ..5.8

The smallest gap in racial unemployment occurred in 1986, when the spread was 5.8 percentage points. If there's any trend here, in terms of a narrowing gap, I invite readers to document it for me.

Although total joblessness is not as much of a problem in the broader Baltimore metropolitan area, the relationship of black and white unemployment rates is similar:

Year .. .. .. .. Black .. .. . White

1980 .. .. .. .. 12.8% .. .. .. 5.8%

1981 .. .. .. .. 16.9 .. .. .. .5.8

1982 .. .. .. .. 18.9 .. .. .. .8.1

1983 .. .. .. .. 15.2 .. .. .. .5.7

1984 .. .. .. .. 11.8 .. .. .. .4.8

1985 .. .. .. .. 13.9 .. .. .. .3.3

1986 .. .. .. .. 10.7 .. .. .. .4.2

1987 .. .. .. .. 12.3 .. .. .. .2.9

1988 .. .. .. .. 12.2 .. .. .. .3.2

1989 .. .. .. .. 10.0 .. .. .. .3.2

Despite the lack of much evidence that blacks are closing the economic gap, complaints about preferential hiring treatment for blacks have become a national issue. Fueled by the recession, such complaints have intensified in the debate over a federal civil rights bill calling for stronger affirmative action programs.

President Bush opposes the measure as a quota bill, and Mayor Schmoke, for one, feels the stage may be set for a divisive political fight over the issue.

"It disturbs me to hear the president speak in terms that seem to imply that there's no discrimination out there any more," Mr. Schmoke said. "I think we're still fighting the evils of racism."

That fight will be made harder, in the mayor's view, by the strong political appeal of an economic retreat on civil rights issues.

Mr. Schmoke kept a close eye, as did many other black leaders, on the North Carolina race for U.S. Senate between conservative incumbent Jesse Helms and Democrat Harvey Gantt, a black and a former mayor of Charlotte.

Mr. Gantt's loss, the mayor said, was clearly aided by effective ads raising the spectre of blacks unfairly taking jobs from whites. It played well in North Carolina, and the mayor thinks it is playing well nationally right now.

"That issue is one that's going to hurt us as we deal with business," the mayor said.

Locally, that need not be the case.

It might be somewhat naive for the mayor to believe that the business community should be the source of a report that, in effect, documents its past problems in promoting blacks and women and helping to develop a healthier minority business community.

But if the GBC is sincere in its desire for an inclusive economic vision, such a report would be an affirmative vote for finding out where we stand and helping to chart a course for a better economic future.

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