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NAACP Strikes Nerve: Race, Politics and Bulldozers

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King Salim Khalfani, resplendent in a black suit, red tie and gleaming bald head, steps to the cameras and unleashes his latest tirade: “Black business inclusion has been no more than an illusion,” he says, his words rhythmic and pointed.

The issue of the day is minority business participation in government contracts, which in the city hovers around 5 percent. Khalfani, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, vows to block construction sites at the John Marshall Hotel, the redevelopment of Dove Court and new hotel projects in Jackson Ward if black contractors continue to be excluded.

But Khalfani's biting attack of City Council and the administration of Mayor Dwight Jones at City Hall Monday morning speaks to a larger political wedge in the city.

Mayor Jones has made minority business development a key focus of his administration while the city struggles to rebuild its deflated economy. Meanwhile, the political winds are shifting as the city continues to repopulate with affluent, and mostly white, young professionals and baby boomers.

That the city's minority business participation is so small isn't exactly big news — it's been that way since, well, forever. It's perhaps more disconcerting to some considering the changing of the political guard. City Council has a majority of white members — six are white; three are black — and if Jones hadn't narrowly defeated City Council President Bill Pantele in November 2008, City Hall would be dominated by whites.

“I'm guessing we're going to have a 9-0 white council in due time,” Khalfani says. “You won't even be able to see one of us soon. All the blacks with any income are going to be out in the county, dealing with all that traffic.”

The NAACP's attack also underscores the difficulties facing Jones, despite his attempts to address issues that Khalifani raises. After assuming office, the mayor reorganized his departments to merge economic and community development. The move signaled a new approach that moved the emphasis of economic development away from the traditional wining and dining of out-of-town corporate execs. Instead, the department's new deputy chief administrative officer, Peter Chapman, has focused on developing policies to help smaller business and enrich work-force development programs that make city residents more attractive workers.

Khalfani says City Council President Kathy Graziano's withdrawn budget amendment to eliminate funding for the director of minority business development — a position that pays $137,594 — is more than just symbolic.

Graziano says “everyone has equal access to bidding in the city” and chastises Khalfani for threatening to halt projects that would hurt city residents. “They want to stop construction of schools? They want to stop the construction of Dove Court?” she asks. “Who would that hurt?”

That's precisely the point. Khalfani says drastic action is needed and he's ready to do whatever's necessary. It's about more than government contracts. “We're not scared,” he says. “Enough is enough. We will no longer be excluded.”

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