Discrimination against Asian American Business Enterprises: The Continuing Need for Affirmative Action in Public Contracting

Article excerpt


The Asian American Institute (AAI) is the Midwest region's pan-Asian nonprofit advocacy organization. Its mission is to empower the Asian American community, by utilizing research, education, and coalition building. Asian American Institute partners with affiliate organizations located in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC; thus, AAI has local, regional, and national expertise with regard to Asian American civil rights issues.

Although affirmative action is being attacked through state-ballot initiatives throughout the country, local municipalities continue to seek to remedy past and present discriminatory practices related to public-sector contracting that have led to the underutilization of minority-owned business enterprises (MBEs) and women-owned business enterprises (WBEs). Although literature exists concerning White women-owned, African American-owned, and Latino-owned business enterprises, there has been little research, analysis, or discussion of Asian American-owned business enterprises.

In the past year, there have been several developments in "the heartland" concerning M/WBE programs that assist with evaluating public-contracting affirmative action programs, with a focus on Asian American contractors. First, at the beginning of 2007, a Seventh Circuit federal appellate court upheld the Illinois Department of Transportation's Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program (that decision specifically included Asian American contractors). Second, although Illinois's Cook County has not had an M/WBE program since 2001, the county in November 2006 passed an interim ordinance that went into effect the following year on President Lincoln's birthday. Like its federal counterpart, the Cook County M/WBE construction program includes Asian Americans. (Cook County analyzed the impact of terminating its M/WBE program and found evidence that construction work by M/WBEs, including Asian American contractors, dropped off dramatically.) Lastly, recent analyses of Asian American businesses by two experts for the city of Chicago provided conclusive quantitative evidence of discrimination against Asian American contractors in Chicago; thus, the city of Chicago in April 2007 repaired its public contracting ordinance to reinclude Asian American contractors as a presumptive minority group.

Local municipalities have a compelling interest in eradicating racial discrimination and its negative impact on public contracting. M/WBE programs exist within the context of racial discrimination against minority-owned businesses, including those owned by Asian Americans. Nationally and locally, individual members of certain minority groups, including Asian Americans, suffer social and economic disadvantages that justify limited remedial measures that allow them to compete fairly for government contracts. This paper analyzes the ongoing racial discrimination against Asian Americans that justifies such ordinances.

As this paper demonstrates, the reality that Asian Americans suffer discrimination in government contracting must be placed in a broader historical context of discrimination. Asian Americans have experienced racial discrimination in virtually all areas of public and private life. Since this nation's earliest days, racially discriminatory federal, state, and private actions have denied Asian Americans basic rights in areas spanning immigration to citizenship, land ownership to education, marriage law to business, and, ultimately, government contracting.

National findings, which are well supported by local research, demonstrate the existence of direct discrimination against Asian American-owned businesses in the awarding of government contracts. In addition to direct discrimination, subtler means of racial discrimination also prevent Asian Americans from competing for government contracts. By limiting available opportunities for funding, training, and experience, racial discrimination blocks Asian Americans from establishing contracting businesses in the first place. …