A heated discussion at the Shelby County Commission's Monday meeting this week indicated that, despite all the strides that have been made in race relations locally and in the provisions of equal rights and opportunities, there
remain obstacles — some of them based on adherence to formulas that were previously advanced as solutions to the problems of racial discord.
A case in point was a controversy in the Commission meeting about something that, once upon a time, would have been regarded as a harmless and routine matter. This was the matter of building a new roof over a facility at the county's Mullins Station complex in East Memphis. It was the second time around for this item on the Commission agenda. When it surfaced at a committee meeting some weeks ago, it drew hostile questioning from two commissioners — Henri Brooks and Walter Bailey — who make it their business to look out for the interests of Shelby County's African-American population.
Brooks had begun the questioning that time around, asking, as is her wont in dealing with any kind of employment situation involving public funds, how many "minority" members were employed by the company, which had gained the construction contract. She was told that 29 "minority" workers would be employed, a clear majority of the work force. So far, so good, and in compliance with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines mandated for county hiring. But Brooks probed further: How many of those were blacks? None, she was told. They were all Hispanic. In the hurly-burly of discussion that followed, it was explained by Public Works administrators that Hispanics comprised the brunt of the work force for all three firms that bid for the project.
That is surely no surprise to anyone who has seen a homebuilding project in Shelby County in recent years, and especially not to anyone who remembers the boom years in new home construction leading up to the bursting of the housing bubble by the Great Crash of 2008/9. Whether directly imported or merely exploited once they got here, Mexican migrant workers were the veritable core of the home construction industry. It may or may not be true, as County Commission Chairman James Harvey maintained in the course of that first Commission debate on the matter, that both blacks and whites were less inclined to do hard labor "under the sun." It is certainly true that homebuilders relied heavily on migrant workers for their construction projects.
They still do, though the drastic decline in home construction since the Crash, leaving a large surplus of unemployed workers, is certifiably one of the exacerbating factors in the debate over illegal immigration.
When the issue came up again on Monday, Brooks and Bailey continued to press their case that the word "minority" was being applied in so literal a context by employers — and equal-opportunity compliance monitors, as well — that blacks, legally still defined as a minority but in fact a majority of the county's population now, are being excluded from employment opportunities.
After a lot of fuss and bother on Monday, the roofing contract got let, but the two outspoken African-American commissioners have a serious issue on their hands. There may in fact be a need to fix some leaks in the protective structure of equal-opportunity mandates.