Cambridge Must Dismantle Racial Disparities in Public Contracts

BizGrow, Economic Justice

Alarming Statistics Show “Old Boys Network” Freezing out Minority- and Women-Owned Businesses in City’s Contracting Process

In an open letter, Lawyers for Civil Rights called upon the City of Cambridge to take significant and aggressive steps to ensure greater participation of Minority- and Women- Business Enterprises (M/WBEs) in its public contracts.

A recent study conducted by the City documented disturbing statistics on Cambridge’s seeming inability to award municipal contracts to minority-owned businesses. Cambridge conducted a Disparity Study that showed that over a five-year span from July 2016 to July 2021:

  • Only 0.5% of the City’s $260 million spent on municipal contracts went to minority-owned businesses.
  • Only 0.5% of the municipal contract money went to white women-owned businesses.
  • Less than $60,000 went to Black-owned businesses — a staggeringly small amount.
  • 99% of all Cambridge municipal contract money went to white male-owned businesses. 

As the Disparity Study documents, M/WBEs are ready, willing, and able to contract with the City in much higher proportions than those utilized but are actively being excluded. This disparity is highly concerning when considering the racial makeup of Cambridge: 57.3% white, 19.2% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 10.6% Black.The harm this does to communities is real. It leaves generations of Cambridge residents behind, excluding them from the millions of dollars flowing into government contractors’ coffers. It also deprives Cambridge of the skills and talents of the many M/WBE firms left out of this process.

The Disparity Study highlights evidence of an informal network of businesses with ties to the City that represent a closed off process for contracting opportunities. This type of “old boys network” hinders progress and leaves the status quo firmly entrenched. 

Numerous recommendations are outlined in the letter, including both race-conscious and race-neutral solutions. The proactive and practical solutions recommended can be successfully and immediately implemented including:

  • Race-conscious measures including MBE/WBE prime contracting goals, a sheltered market program, and contract-specific MBE/WBE subcontracting goals.
  • Race-neutral measures including, breaking down large prime contracts into smaller pieces that smaller companies can successfully compete for, eliminating overly-stringent qualification requirements, and creating a publicly accessible dashboard and scorecard for transparency and accountability with respect to progress on M/WBEs, as a means for city officials, the M/WBE community, and the public to see where progress is being made and where more work needs to be done.

Lawyers for Civil Rights urgently calls on the City of Cambridge to take aggressive and substantial action to strengthen its equity efforts and eliminate obstacles that exist for the City’s diverse business community. We stand ready to support the City of Cambridge to make groundbreaking policy reforms that will fuel the growth of small businesses — the economic heart of our Commonwealth.