YES on Prop 16: ‘All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks’

Fred Jordan, president of the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce, has long been a force for economic justice in the Bay Area. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

by Lin Robertson

Eva Paterson, then the executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, and Fred Jordan, president of the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce, in collaboration with Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, led the fight against Prop 209 in 1996. They are also supporting today’s Prop 16, a California ballot proposition that will appear on the Nov. 3, 2020, general election ballot. With a vote of YES for Prop 16, Californians will choose to amend the Constitution of California to repeal 1996’s Prop 209. 

Eva Paterson was among the Black leaders who persuaded San Francisco to implement and enforce an aggressive program of affirmative action in contracting overseen by its Human Rights Commission in the 1980s. A national leader ever since in the fight to sustain and strengthen affirmative action, her Equal Rights Society does the research and writes the reports that substantiate the disparities that affirmative action can fix. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell 

This action would reestablish affirmative action policies – to the greatest extent possible – by repealing Prop 209, which facilitated systematic racism directed especially at African Americans during the last two decades.

The facts 

The term “affirmative action” was first used in an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy on March 6, 1961. It required that all government agencies “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated fairly during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” 

President Lyndon Johnson took it a step further in 1965, requiring that government “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed and that employees are treated fairly during employment, without regard to their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” 

What was the intent? To give minorities “equal access to that of the majority population.” The idea was to make sure that “certain designated groups within a society are able to participate in all provided opportunities including promotional, educational and training opportunities.” Both Kennedy and Johnson wanted affirmative action to compensate for centuries of discrimination and racism.

Thirty years later in 1996, however, Prop 209 was implemented in the state of California. The new rule required the following: “The State shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.” 

It suggested that non-minority groups suffered as a result of affirmative action requirements. Let’s be honest: When did we ever get preferential treatment? 


San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce President Fred Jordan urges everyone to vote YES on Prop 16 in the November 2020 election to end the ban on affirmative action. – Video: Johnnie Burrell, International Media TV

What was the impact of Prop 209’s policies from 1996 through 2020? According to Fred Jordan, it was disastrous: “Three years after Prop 209 was passed in 1996, 80 percent of African American contractors went out of business.” 

Why? Prop 209 allowed government institutions to disregard race, sex and ethnicity in instances when underrepresented communities sought public employment, public contracting opportunities and education in public colleges in California. 

In 2003, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – our “Notorious RBG” – dissented when the Supreme Court declared the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program for undergraduate admissions unconstitutional in Gratz v. Bollinger. She called out the majority for turning a blind eye toward “the stain of generations of racial oppression that is still visible in our society.”

Who would have thought that the documentary of her life, which aired on CNN in 2018, in which she is quoting Harriot Kezia Hunt – “All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks” – would be followed with all of us watching in horror as George Floyd was murdered less than two years later?

Jordan’s book, “The Lynching of the American Dream: In Defense of Affirmative Action,” published in 1998, describes the unfair Republican coup that would further marginalize African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and women through Prop 209. He makes the case that “continuing bias in education, employment and government contracting makes affirmative action needed.” 

A 2015 report by the Equal Justice Society, founded a decade ago and headed by Eva Paterson, has since concluded that Prop 209 was put in place to end race-conscious contracting programs, leading to a loss of over $1 billion annually for MWBEs. 

But is that the whole story? Proponents of Prop 16 claim that it will allow California’s policymakers to enact laws, programs and guidelines “to end and correct the effects of a specific form of discrimination” through “good faith efforts … to identify, select, and train potentially qualified minorities and women.” These efforts may not include, however, the usage of quotas, as the Supreme Court ruled against the use of racial quotas in admissions or employment in the case of the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978). 

Does that mean that public agencies only have to create a paper trail to show that they “tried” to invite minorities to participate, but not really? Can they set their own local goals that still diminish opportunities for targeted communities that Prop 16 is intended for? 

That is not the case in San Francisco. While the city is not currently beholden to affirmative action hiring and procurement policies, they enforce their own mandatory local hire and Local Business Enterprise (LBE), participation requirements that are usually associated with public works contracts. 

Before Prop 209 was enacted, California’s affirmative action programs significantly benefited Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs). A 2015 report by the Equal Justice Society, founded a decade ago and headed by Eva Paterson, has since concluded that Prop 209 was put in place to end race-conscious contracting programs, leading to a loss of over $1 billion annually for MWBEs. 

To survive in the good old white boy system, Black contractors who were lucky enough to get their foot in the door also had to be 10 times better – as Michelle Obama recently suggested – to prove they could perform above and beyond client expectations. 

While Black construction workers have been locked out of construction since shortly after the passage of Prop 209 that ended affirmative action, they constituted a major portion of the workforce for the rebuilding of the Alice Griffith housing development in Bayview Hunters Point. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

Black contractors interviewed for this piece believe that Prop 16 will help them get more access to state funded contracts. They all agree that when you finally get to the table, however, you still have got to deliver a quality product from the get go. Building a good reputation as a professional allows us to obtain the leverage needed to grow our businesses successfully. 

I’ve seen the impact of exclusion firsthand myself. During my tenure as the Labor Compliance Manager at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) for over 10 years, I saw only two Black contractors who worked as subs on SFUSD projects, with minor subcontracts that were not profitable. They were also the only ones that brought Black crew members on the job. 

The Alice Griffith HOPE 6 Housing Project that was subject to the US Housing & Urban Development (HUD) agency’s Section 3 requirements was an excellent example of a City of San Francisco project where Black contractors and Black construction workers made up 45 percent of the crew. That example is an exception to the rule. Usually, we are not included. 

HUD’s Section 3, a form of affirmative action, was enforced on the reconstruction of Alice Griffith, thanks to HUD representative Jerlinda Banks, posing with some of the construction workers. – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

Federally funded projects, however, require that public agencies and their developers, or prime contractors, make “a good faith effort” to hire and contract minorities on their projects. Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBEs), including MWBEs, actually do better on federal projects, to the tune of about 17 percent participation, according to Jordan. If Prop 209 remains in place in California, however, African Americans will continue to receive less than 1 percent of state and local contracts in California, which is not even close to what should be available in public works implemented by agencies like Caltrans.

A new startup in San Francisco, Digital Mobility, is a nonprofit launched by Jerry Mixon and Yolanda Lewis, San Francisco-born technologists. Digital Mobility’s mission is to bridge the technology divide and economic exclusion to reduce discrimination typically experienced by populations “branded Black.” Mixon and Lewis joined forces to address systematic exclusion that has led to our extermination “as evidenced by centuries of gentrification, imprisonment, discrimination and death to the point that Blacks have become nearly extinct in San Francisco and Silicon Valley.”

Digital Mobility’s Yolanda Lewis and Jerry Mixon

Jerry Mixon for the past 20 years has used his unique skills to also reduce violence on the streets of San Francisco, leveraging technology as an outlet, resource and enabler for positive outcomes. Mixon launched Urban Techies, LLC, which has contributed to programs like Mega Black SF, San Francisco’s Street Violence Intervention Program and other similar initiatives implemented by the Mayor’s Office. That experience prepared him to lead progressive and measurable positive change in addressing systematic gentrification, discrimination and exclusion in San Francisco’s underserved neighborhoods. 

Yolanda Lewis founded Innovative Resources, where she launched one of the nation’s first help desk certification programs in the early 1990s, developing technology training programs that led to increased participation by women as well as African Americans, Latinos and Asians who were historically excluded from technology-related employment in Silicon Valley at that time.

Don’t Mixon and Lewis sound like the type of community leaders that should benefit from affirmative action policies that will further enable them to make a real difference in our society?

It is unfortunate that those who are against Prop 16 include some in the Asian community who worry that reinstatement of Affirmative Action could negatively impact their population in California. How often has the system pitted one minority group against another? 

Jordan Chow tutors workforce trainee Charanita Banks at the SFPUC Contractors Assistance Center – Photo: Johnnie Burrell

While Asians make up 14 percent of the population, they constitute over 40 percent of the student body in the UC system. That may explain why, according to the latest polls, only 32 percent of the Asian population supports Prop 16. They should be mindful, however, that their lack of support for Prop 16 could also hurt Asians as well. In the areas of public contracting, public employment and public education, we would argue that opening the door a little wider, so that Black and Brown residents of California also get a piece of the pie, should not be objected to by “our brethren.” 

A system that values all of us and not just some of us would encourage real good faith efforts that lead to inclusion and participation in college, apprenticeship programs, employment and contracting. Gov. Gavin Newsom concurs: “[T]here’s more we must do to root out racial inequity and structural bias.” There is also hope in the fact that the Opportunity for All Coalition, aka YES on Prop 16, has been endorsed by Chinese for Affirmative Action as well as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Fred Jordan believes that we will get the votes needed to remove Prop 209 as a policy. He is doing everything he can to make it happen. Below is a copy of a recent letter that he wrote to corporate entities reminding them why it is critical to support Prop 16. 

Organizations like Wells Fargo, who recently apologized for suggesting that there is a “limited pool of Black talent” as an excuse for not hiring those in our community, should hear our position loud and clear – this is not good enough. That attitude is also rampant in the public sector, where public contracting for African Americans continues to be minimal under Prop 209.

In the over 10 years Lin Robertson served as the Labor Compliance Manager at the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), she saw only two Black contractors, and they were the only contractors who brought Black crew members on the job. 

Prime contractors with Caltrans have also argued that insufficient minority businesses are available to participate as subs on state bond funded projects. DBEs and MWBEs make up only 1 percent of those that are hired to work on projects as contractors or professional services vendors, despite the fact that we all have the credentials to participate. If you don’t invite us to the party, we can’t show up! 

Jordan wants to remedy the lack of opportunity that currently exists because of Prop 209 on Nov. 3. He calls for us to vote YES on Prop 16. Let’s do it. It’s time!

Fred Jordan’s open letter to Bay Area tech firms regarding partnership with the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce

Fillmore Heritage Center – Photo: Robin Chiang & Co.

Dear Salesforce co-CEO and Chairman Marc Benioff (also addressed to other major tech firms):

The San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce has been frequently noted as one of the most influential minority organizations in California and is an award recipient as the most outstanding Black Chamber in America by the National Black Chamber of Commerce. We are no exception to the traditional racism and discrimination that has held back business opportunities for African Americans in our City and are calling on your company to work with us to bring about parity and reverse this forced outmigration of African Americans.

Our current programs of business advocacy, education, workshops, training, mentorship and supportive services to our members and the minority business community as a whole is primarily implemented by 14 committees and our Board Executive Committee. Since Proposition 209 in 1996 gutted affirmative action and legalized systemic discrimination in State contracting, employment and college admissions for minorities and women, contracting with the City of San Francisco remains less than 1 percent for African American businesses and even less with corporate America. 

Proposition 16, critical to the advancement of Black business, is on the California ballot in November 2020 to repeal Prop 209. Will your company support Prop 16?

In these critical times, we want to partner with your company to move the chamber and the Black community to a new level. The following are suggestions for working together:

1. Designate 10 percent of your company procurement to Black business.

2. Provide a workshop at chamber offices or your office in your area of expertise. 

3. The chamber partnered with the City for a $1.5 million revolving loan for 40 companies to save our Black businesses in this pandemic but received 390 applications. For the 350 Black companies that will receive no financial support, would your company provide that support? Can your company also provide technical and management assistance?

4. The chamber can be of mutual benefit to your organization by promoting it among our members and to various minority business organizations statewide.

5. Special project: The Fillmore Heritage Center is an upscale commercial and entertainment center that featured Yoshi’s Jazz Club for years. The Fillmore was once known as the Harlem of the West, featuring 29 jazz and supper clubs contributing significantly to the economy and culture of San Francisco. Today, this last vestige of African American culture stands empty, with numerous Black owned businesses in this lower Fillmore barely surviving – even before this pandemic. 

The chamber would like to buy this building for its offices, establish a visitors and convention center to attract Black organizations from around the country, facilitate retail along Fillmore, provide television and streaming activities and jumpstart the entertainment center formerly known as Yoshi’s. Most of all, we hope this would drive foot traffic back to the lower Fillmore to support the local businesses. 

The chamber is implementing a fundraiser to buy the Fillmore Heritage Center building to maintain Black culture in San Francisco and the Black business community. At minimum, we wish to reopen the building and have a management team in place. We are asking for your support. 

We look forward to hearing from you. I can be reached through the chamber office, 415-749-6400.

Sincerely,

Frederick Jordan, PE, Chairman, San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce

Lin Robertson began her career by launching the Aruba Foreign Investment Agency in her native Aruba, a Caribbean island nation off the coast of Venezuela. Coming to California in 1998, she worked with the San Jose Office of Equality Assurance and in 2005 founded The Labor Compliance Managers, where she is managing director. She is also senior producer for International Media TV. Lin can be reached at lin.tlcm@gmail.com. This story is part of a series on Reversing the Out-Migration of Blacks from San Francisco funded by Fred Jordan of the San Francisco African American Chamber of Commerce.