US city facing legal action over 'discriminatory' procurement

18 February 2021

A coalition of black and Latinx organisations has filed a civil rights complaint against the City of Boston, claiming its procurement system discriminates against minorities.

The Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, the Greater Boston Latino Network, and Amplify Latinx said they launched the action “in response to gross racial disparities” in public contracting under mayor Martin J. Walsh’s city administration.

The claim, filed with the federal Department of Justice and Department of Transportation, is seeking an investigation into the city’s contracting patterns.

Lawyers said the city had “engaged in a pattern of discrimination against black and Latinx-owned businesses by maintaining a public procurement system that unlawfully excludes these businesses from equal contracting opportunities”.  

A 2018 city study to assess the demographics of public contracts found just 1.2% of the $2.1bn spent in public contracts went to black and Latinx-owned businesses.

This was despite the presence of a large number of such businesses in the city capable of fulfilling these contracts.

The city spent just $9.4m on contracts with black-owned businesses. 

“The stark racial disparities – over which the city has direct control – demonstrate deliberate and intentional discrimination against black and Latinx-owned businesses on the part of the city,” said the groups in a statement.

They alleged that an “old boys’ network” unfairly excludes them from contracting opportunities.   

“As the study’s rigorous statistical analysis demonstrates – and personal testimonials can confirm – black and Latinx-owned businesses are ready, willing, and able to perform the type of work that the city needs,” the statement added.

The study found that black-owned businesses had potentially been denied over $70m in contracting opportunities over a five-year period.

The complainants have called for the city to adopt “a race-conscious procurement programme”, which they say must be implemented with urgency “to cure the deep injustices embedded in Boston’s public contracting”.

They are seeking immediate federal intervention to compel the city to adopt such measures. 

Walsh, who is soon to depart to become president Joe Biden’s labour secretary, is reported to be on the brink of issuing an order that would force city procurement to allocate more contracts to minority-owned businesses.

But The Boston Globe said the order, which would require at least 11% of city spending on construction and professional goods and services to go to businesses owned by white women, and 6% to those owned by people of colour, would fall far short of what the group was seeking.

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