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Joe Debro on racism in construction: A study of the manpower implications of small business financing, Part 1

January 2, 2014

by Joseph Debro

A 1968 book-length report, titled “A Study of the Manpower Implications of Small Business Financing: A Survey of 149 Minority and 202 Anglo-Owned Small Businesses in Oakland, California,” was sent to the Bay View by its author, Joseph Debro, prior to his death in November 2013, and his family has kindly permitted the Bay View to publish it. The survey it’s based on was conducted by the Oakland Small Business Development Center, which Debro headed, “in cooperation with the small businessmen of Oakland, supported in part by a grant, No. 91-05-67-29, from the U.S. Department of Labor, Manpower Administration, Office of Manpower, Policy, Evaluation and Research.” Project co-directors were Jack Brown and Joseph Debro, and survey coordinator was Agustin Jimenez. The Bay View is publishing the report as a series. A prolog appeared in the December 2013 Bay View, and this is Part 1 of the report.

Introduction, Part 1:

National Guard with 'fixed bayonets for Bayview Hunters Point occupation' by The Hunters Point Bayview Spokesman 100866, web
The nation was on fire as this report was written. The rebellions of the ‘60s reached their peak in 1968 with the fury that erupted April 4 at the assassination of Martin Luther King. The only major rebellion in the Bay Area was in Hunters Point in September 1966, when youth demanding jobs decent housing and an end to police terrorism held Hunters Point Hill for several days as National Guard tanks and troops occupied Third Street below. – Photo: The Spokesman newspaper, serving Hunters Point Bayview
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, and one white – separate and unequal.” And, unless immediate corrective action is taken, “large scale and continuing violence could result, followed by white retaliation, and, ultimately, the separation of the two communities into a garrison state.”

These are words from the much publicized and relatively blunt report of the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders, which pinpointed white racism as the root cause of Black riots, poverty, and social, economic and political unrest in the United States.

The commission’s report underscored the fact that the process of racial discrimination and segregation has been going on, at different velocities, throughout our history, and that underlying it is a multidimensional concept of white racial superiority over the dark-skinned peoples of our nation and of the world.

Specifically, white racism has provided Blacks, Mexican Americans and other minority groups with segregated and inferior housing, poor or non-existent educational and recreational facilities, inferior jobs with little or no opportunity for advancement, inadequate federal programs and municipal services, discriminatory consumer and credit practices, a miniscule involvement in entrepreneurial activities, almost invisible political representation, and an insidious Anglo-dominated caste system.

The President’s Commission on Civil Disorders pinpointed white racism as the root cause of Black riots, poverty, and social, economic and political unrest in the United States.

Thus, the white-controlled American system, like so many other racist societies, has engendered feelings of deep resentment and frustration among Blacks and other dark-skinned minority groups. The old order of poverty and quasi-citizenship is no longer tolerated.

Riots erupt and white politicians extemporize on “crime in the streets.” At the same time, little mention is made of the long-standing white tradition of violence perpetrated against dark-skinned Americans. Indeed, it is ludicrous that in 1968, over a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, a presidential commission should have to point out white racism as the prime cause for the growing schism between light- and dark-skinned Americans.

Throughout the history of our nation, native Indians, Blacks, Latins, Orientals and, in general, all immigrants who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) have been the victims of violence and discrimination. Through time and the gradual rise to organized power, though, most of the phenotypically Caucasian minority groups have gained acceptance in American society, have taken on the accoutrements of racial intolerance, and have begun to exploit their dark-skinned fellow Americans.

In the process of becoming acculturated, these white minority groups have become Anglos (a term which has come to signify all White Americans save those of Latin American descent) in the sense that they have now melded into the majority and are no longer easily singled out for pejorative ends. As a consequence, the level of opportunity available to these European immigrant groups increased and they rose from the status of have-nots to haves.

Riots erupt and white politicians extemporize on “crime in the streets.” At the same time, little mention is made of the long-standing white tradition of violence perpetrated against dark-skinned Americans.

The net general effect of this time-honored American tradition of white assimilation and non-white exclusion is a polar society – the Anglo overlord haves and the non-Anglo underdog have-nots. In the past, this polarization has been kept in stasis by the lack of organized power or a unified front on the part of the have-nots. Recent incidents, however, show that this is changing.

The decade of the ‘60s – decades, not centuries, count as eras now – has seen a new flush of underdog militancy which will not be easily quelled by the Anglo counter-insurgency forces with their armored vehicles, tear gas, mass arrests, rooftop helicopter pads and massive firepower. The coming years, it seems obvious, will be characterized by increased militancy by minority groups unless they are given the right to earn a meaningful share of the fruits of America’s economy and the overlord-underdog caste system is abolished.

The coming years, it seems obvious, will be characterized by increased militancy by minority groups unless they are given the right to earn a meaningful share of the fruits of America’s economy and the overlord-underdog caste system is abolished.

The Commission on Civil Disorders offered some possible solutions to this pervasive American problem. ((

U.S. Riot Commission Report (also known as the Kerner Report), “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” The major suggestions made by the Kerner Report are the following:

– immediate action in creating 2 million new jobs within the next three years: 1 million by private industry and an equal number by local, state and federal governments.

– tax incentives and other subsidies for new industries that locate in poverty areas, both urban and rural, which would offer job training to the hard-core unemployed.

– concerted efforts to remove artificial barriers to employment such as racial discrimination, arrest records or lack of a high school diploma.

– stepped-up efforts to eliminate de facto segregation and racial desegregation in both Northern and Southern schools by applying civil rights laws vigorously.

– early childhood education for all disadvantaged children of the nation, increased assistance for older students who wish to pursue college studies, and greater aid for adult basic education.

– basic reform of the nation’s welfare system so that uniform national standards at least as high as current annual poverty level of income – $3,335 for an urban family of four – can be attained.

– development of an income supplement program for those who can and wish to work in order to promote incentives for fuller employment. This suggestion is quite similar to the guaranteed annual income proposal set forth by a number of social agencies.

– requirement that the federal government pay 90 percent of total welfare costs, eliminating in the process residence requirements for welfare payments. There is need to remove the odious freeze on aid to dependent children and to eliminate the disagreeable “man in the house” rule designed to curb illegitimate births among unwed mothers on welfare.

– expansion of rent supplements, model cities, urban renewal and public housing programs, in addition to enactment of an ownership supplement program to assist low income families to purchase homes.)) One area which was not stressed, however, was the role of the ghetto entrepreneur as a source of employment for the hard-core unemployed and as a symbol of personal business success so lacking at present among Blacks and other minority groups.

One area which was not stressed, however, was the role of the ghetto entrepreneur as a source of employment for the hard-core unemployed and as a symbol of personal business success so lacking at present among Blacks and other minority groups.

It is significant to note that the causal relationships involved in our nation’s present-day racial strife can all be found in the traditional obstacles facing underdog entrepreneurs. Conversely, many of the minority group problems tearing the United States apart can be resolved by helping ghetto dwellers strengthen or start up their own businesses.

Many of the minority group problems tearing the United States apart can be resolved by helping ghetto dwellers strengthen or start up their own businesses.

Throughout American history, Negroes, Mexican Americans and other non-Anglos have been categorized as laborers with neither initiative nor intelligence sufficient for successful self-employment. This view is patently false, for some non-Anglo businessmen have been successful in their own right in spite of the tremendous barriers provided by white racism.

Perhaps more important than the few successful Black and Mexican American businessmen, however, are the numbers of previously hard-core unemployed who have found steady jobs at minority-owned concerns.

Frequently, these unskilled or semi-skilled minority workers have been victimized by a white world which prevents them from acquiring or holding employment in Anglo-owned concerns. Yet these same hard-core unemployed have good employment records when they work for members of their own racial or ethnic groups and thus account for a significant percentage of the employed minority labor force.

President Johnson has asked for the creation of 2 million jobs for the hard-core unemployed in both the public and private sectors within the next three years (1968-1971). Many thousands of these jobs could be produced by Black, Mexican American, Chinese, Japanese and other minority employers if only the socio-cultural relationship between the ethnic or racial group of the employer and that of the employee were better understood. Coupled with a frank acceptance of the historic causes and present-day dimensions of white discrimination, this knowledge could and can be applied to a concrete and highly successful minority entrepreneurial program.

The history of Black occupational evolution from slavery days until the present shows that there have been few important socio-economic improvements for the Negro since his forced advent to the United States over two centuries ago. He arrived in bondage as chattel property, and as a slave he had no rights. The fruit of his labor was rarely his. His slave labor was treasured by his Southern white masters, but despised by “poor white trash” who held no slaves and were in direct economic competition with them.

The few Blacks who dwelled in the North were the victims of discriminatory legislation and customs. Their labor was in no way valued. Wave after wave of European immigrants successfully dislodged the free Negro from skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled trades and domestic occupations. With only limited opportunities to enter business, it was no wonder that few Black entrepreneurs stood out during these early days.

After the War Between the States, the Black man became even more the victim of white wrath. In the South, all-white labor unions blocked his entry into many occupations. Economic competition with whites was discouraged and the threat of a lynching for “nigra troublemakers” was generally sufficient to dampen the spirits of even the boldest exponents of fair employment practices in the 19th century.

Jim Crowism left Black people with few educational opportunities and no political power whatsoever. The birth of industrialization with the concomitant demand for more labor than was indigenous to the North provided the catalyst for rural Black men to migrate city-ward. In many cases, the Negro was lured to Northern cities as a strikebreaker, thereby increasing racial antipathies already at a feverishly high pitch around the turn of the century.

Big business viewed Black labor as a convenient lever against the excesses of white unions. And, as unions became stronger, they generally forced management to fire or severely restrict the employment of Blacks and other minority workers. This situation has prevailed in almost all American Federation of Labor trade union affiliates up until the present day.

Not allowed to acquire a skill or union membership, the Black man was and still is depressed economically in a society where ever-increasing increments of education and experience are demanded.

Economic competition with whites was discouraged and the threat of a lynching for “nigra troublemakers” was generally sufficient to dampen the spirits of even the boldest exponents of fair employment practices in the 19th century.

The net effect of these overlapping political, social and economic processes is that very few Negroes have had the opportunity to acquire the necessary skills to become entrepreneurs in any real sense of the word. With almost no chance of engaging in business enterprises which depend on inter-racial trade, those few Black entrepreneurs who do manage to open a business must rely almost exclusively on a Negro market. As a consequence, there has been a proliferation of Black businesses which cater to Black trade – barber and beauty shops, second-hand stores, funeral parlors, groceries, neighborhood repair shops and restaurants.

These service industries can be initiated with extremely small amounts of capital and seemingly little business finesse. But, by being almost entirely dependent upon a limited ghetto market, unable to acquire sufficient additional funds at low interest rates for expansion or to pay ever-present creditors, very few Black enterprises are able to survive for any appreciable length of time.

As a result of the high mortality rate of Negro-owned businesses, today’s Black youths cannot look to successful images in family, friends or neighbors as a stimulus to embark upon a career of self-employment. Nor can they look to the white man’s world for a meaningful future.

Not allowed to acquire a skill or union membership, the Black man was and still is depressed economically in a society where ever-increasing increments of education and experience are demanded.

Entirely frustrated with the desultory options that are available – Uncle Tom positions in white-controlled public and private enterprises or menial labor jobs – many of today’s Black adolescents and young men have chosen a violent course of action in order to force change in what for them is a hermetic society.

Although their specific histories are quite different, Mexican Americans and other Latins, like Blacks, have been exploited by Anglos. And, as with the Negro, the roots of white prejudice lie buried in the past.

Deep racial bias against brown-skinned Latin Americans permeated Anglo thinking early in the 19th century, if not before. The Mexican or “greaser” came to be considered as an inferior creature suitable for tasks requiring little intelligence and much muscle.

Throughout the Southwest after the Texas and Mexican wars, Mexican American original settlers and immigrants alike were used in heavier common labor and agricultural work where unionization was discouraged by industrialists and large-scale farmers. This is as true today as it was generations ago.

Both Mexican Americans and Blacks were considered as cheap labor first and foremost. Once their utility as such was undermined, they were exported or isolated or made wards of the state.

Like the Negro, Mexican Americans have been used as strikebreakers and have had to content themselves with low wages, lack of educational resources, segregated housing, and a denigrating exposure to all forms of social and economic discrimination. They have been but poorly represented politically except in a handful of places in the country.

Refusing to abandon a viable cultural heritage from Mexico even though they may have been born in the United States, many Mexican Americans have never mastered English. It is also plausible that from experiencing white racism, they see no good reason for learning the Anglo language.

During the 20th century, Mexican immigrant labor has been used by big business as a device to bring down production costs. But when adverse dips in the economic cycle occurred or when “lily-white” union pressures became too great, Mexicans have been herded like cattle onto buses and trains by city, county and state authorities and shipped back to Mexico, even though many of them were native-born Americans.

Joe Debro
Joe Debro
Discriminated against by Anglos because of their language, ethnic origins and skin pigmentation, Mexican Americans were and still are subject to limited educational and training opportunities. Those who sought self-employment were forced into low-paying and highly vulnerable service occupations located within the barrio, the Mexican American ghetto. As with Blacks, no success symbols were available to Mexican American youths who might have gone into business.

Both Mexican Americans and Blacks were considered as cheap labor first and foremost. Once their utility as such was undermined, they were exported or isolated or made wards of the state. Very little effort was made to recognize, let alone prevent, the inevitable process of Anglo exploitation of both these groups.

A frustration similar to that found in today’s Black youths is developing among the “Chicano” militants. There is fatigue with the degrading Anglo system. A growing unwillingness to play the pauper pawn to Anglo chessboard kings is evident.

Joseph Debro, born Nov. 27, 1928, in Jackson, Miss., and a pillar of Oakland until his death on Nov. 5, 2013, was president of Bay Area Black Builders and of Transbay Builders, a general engineering contractor, former director of the Oakland Small Business Development Center and the California Office of Small Business, co-founder of the National Association of Minority Contractors and a bio-chemical engineer.

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