American from Sudan is denied the minority set-aside program BALTIMORE CITY

December 17, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Emil S. Abdelsayed called himself an African-American long before the term was fashionable.

But when it comes to Baltimore's minority set-aside program, Mr. Abdelsayed -- born in the African nation of Sudan and now an American citizen -- may be an African-American, but he is no minority.

The Board of Estimates yesterday upheld a Law Department recommendation denying Mr. Abdelsayed entrance into the city's minority set-aside program. Being in the program would qualify Mr. Abdelsayed's struggling engineering firm for work on the 20 percent of city contracts that by law must go to minority-owned companies.

Mr. Abdelsayed argued that he is eligible for the state's set-aside program and that he has experienced racial discrimination. "I am not white. I have problems even getting a job because of my accent," he added.

His testimony had little impact on the Board of Estimates, the five-member panel that awards city contracts and hears appeals for several city boards.

Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, a black American, said she had also been a victim of racism. She was unsympathetic to foreign-born Mr. Abdelsayed.

"I couldn't get a job even if I kept my mouth shut. You would have to say something. And even with that, you would not be discriminated against," said Ms. McLean, who helped author the set-aside law while serving on the City Council.

Mr. Abdelsayed, who has brown skin and straight, black hair, said he has had a difficult time getting work for his firm, which does structural engineering and consulting. Part of his trouble is racial, he suspects. The rest of it has to do with the problems of fledgling firms everywhere.

"I am a small company," he said. "I have to team with a big company to get work."

At one point in the discussion, Ms. McLean called Mr. Abdelsayed a "Muslim-speaking Arab." She quickly corrected herself and called Mr. Abdelsayed an "Arab-speaking Muslim," a description used in a report to the board.

"I am a Christian," Mr. Abdelsayed protested. "Most of Sudan is Christian."

Mr. Abdelsayed's application to gain minority status for his firm, MISR Engineering & Construction Co. of Timonium, was rejected by the city's Minority Business Standards Committee in June. The committee said Mr. Abdelsayed is not part of a minority group covered by the city's set-aside law. He appealed the decision to the board.

The city law applies only to "black Americans," some groups of Hispanics, Asian-Americans and American Indians. In the law, black Americans are defined as people with origins in any black racial group of Africa or the Caribbean.

Despite some concerns raised by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- who feared a legal challenge by Mr. Abdelsayed could undermine the entire program -- the board agreed with the committee's report. And it was not swayed by the fact that many black Americans refer to themselves as African-American or that the term "African-American" appears in state law.

The law is specific about which groups are qualified for minority-set asides because of successful challenges to set-aside laws in other cities. In the wake of a 1989 Supreme Court decision striking down a minority set-aside law in Richmond, Va., Baltimore recrafted its law so that it applied only to groups able to document in formal hearings that they were victims of past discrimination.

The Board of Estimates said Mr. Abdelsayed did not meet that standard. Mr. Abdelsayed left the hearing frustrated. "I don't want to take [this] to court," he said. "But this is really unfortunate. . . . You can't tell me that I'm white."

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