Sheep and Goats

TIM BAKER

January 04, 1993|By TIM BAKER

Emil S. Abdelsayed is a brown-skinned Arabic-speaking engineer born in a Christian family in the southern regions of the Islamic nation of Sudan. For centuries his people have resisted domination by northern Muslims who control the government in Khartoum.

In part to escape discrimination at home, Mr. Abdelsayed emigrated to this country in 1968. He became an American citizen and started his own small struggling engineering firm in Timonium.

Last month, the Baltimore city government deliberately discriminated against him on the basis of his ethnic background. The Board of Estimates ruled that Mr. Abdelsayed came from an ''Arabic'' nation on the African continent, rather than a ''black'' one. Therefore, he was not an ''African-American.'' He was an ''Arab,'' not a ''black.'' As a result, he was ineligible to participate in the city's set-aside program for ''minority'' businesses.

Mr. Abdelsayed is a modest man who doesn't want to cause any trouble. But the city's ruling perplexed him. You see, last April the state government certified him as an ''African American'' under the state's set-aside program. So now he is an eligible ''minority'' everywhere in Maryland except Baltimore.

The present city program was enacted in 1986. It is intended to overcome barriers that have prevented minority businesses from participating in city contracts. The program requires prime contractors on city jobs to award 20 percent of their subcontracts to ''minority business enterprises.'' A similar preference entitles women to 3 percent of subcontracts on city jobs.

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that such minority set-aside programs were unconstitutional unless evidence showed that a particular minority had suffered historical discrimination on city contracts. In Baltimore that showing has since been made by women and four minority groups -- black Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans and Native Americans.

Membership in the group, rather than any actual personal disadvantage, is the touchstone of eligibility. Members of the five designated groups are not required to show they individually suffer from any present impairment. And an individual who is not a member of one of these five groups cannot make himself eligible for the program, even if he can prove that he is now an actual victim of racial or ethnic discrimination.

At Mr. Abdelsayed's hearing before the Board of Estimates, he tried to explain that his heavy accent and foreign birth make it difficult for him to get work for his firm.

City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean, an African-American, dismissed his claims as irrelevant. She pointed out that he simply didn't belong to one of the right minorities. She referred to him as a ''Muslim-speaking Arab,'' but quickly corrected herself and called him an ''Arab-speaking Muslim.''

Mr. Abdelsayed protested that he was actually a Christian. His religion made no difference to the Board of Estimates. He was an ''Arab,'' not a ''African.'' He wasn't ''black.'' The set-aside program didn't include his ''minority'' group. That's all there was to it.

Evidently, the city finds this result embarrassing. Mr. Abdelsayed has now been told that he and other ''Arab Americans'' can present evidence to the City Council that as a group they have suffered discrimination. If the council finds that there has been a historical pattern of discrimination against them, ''Arab Americans'' can then be added as a new designated minority group in the city's set-aside program.

This advice is doubtless well-intentioned. But it may not solve Mr. Abdelsayed's problem. Suppose he himself is not really an ''Arab'' American? Is a southern Sudanese Christian an ''Arab?'' I don't know. But I've been told that if you run around calling people ''Arabs'' in heavily Christian southern Sudan, you can end up with a gun in your face. Southerners in that country have been fighting a bloody rebellion against northern Muslims for years.

What about the millions of people in sub-Sahara Africa who speak Arabic and worship Allah? Are they ''Arabs'' or ''Africans?'' If they're both, why isn't Mr. Abdelsayed?

Surely Afro-centrist scholars will rise to the defense of this man born on the Nile. After all, they want city schools to teach our children that the pharaonic glories of ancient Egypt were all a triumph of black African civilization.

Minority set-aside programs serve a worthy goal. They expand minority businesses' access to opportunities from which discrimination long excluded African-Americans and others. But the programs themselves impose racial and ethnic tests which include some people who don't need any extra help and exclude others who do. Whatever minority Mr. Abdelsayed belongs to, he is disadvantaged. An underdog. If any one deserves a helping hand, he does. Yet the program excludes him.

America's ethnic context is much more complicated than a simple black-white dichotomy. There are many minorities. None has had an easy time in this country. Why do some qualify for special help when others don't? Who decides?

Mr. Abdelsayed wants to participate in a minority-preference program in a black-majority city run by a black administration. The Board of Estimates, a majority of whose members are black, rejected him on the ground that he wasn't the right kind of ''African'' and didn't qualify as a ''minority.''

Perhaps Mr. Abdelsayed's minority is ''Southern Sudanese Christian Non-Arab American.'' This is probably a small group. But it won't have any trouble proving discrimination against it in Baltimore. When Mr. Abdelsayed appears in front of the City Council, all he'll have to do is produce a transcript of his hearing in front of the Board of Estimates.

Tim Baker's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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