Rhode Island Black Business Association Demands State Hire More Minority-, Women-Owned Businesses

Rhode Island’s practices regarding its minority-owned business contracting program are under scrutiny for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to the Rhode Island Current, a September 18 letter written by Lawyers for Civil Rights on behalf of the Rhode Island Black Business Association (RIBBA) addressed “the distressing under-utilization of Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MBE/WBE) in state contracting for construction, goods, and services.”

The letter, sent to Gov. Dan McKee in addition to Department of Administration Director Jonathan Womer and Tomas Avila, the associate director of Rhode Island’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Opportunity, advises the state to alter its actions to “avoid legal liability.”

The minority and Business Contracting Program law was passed in 1986. It requires that 10% of state contracts and purchase dollars be allotted for women- or minority-owned businesses. There have only been three instances where the state met or surpassed these guidelines: 2018, 2019 and 2022.

Tasheena Davis, litigation fellow with the Lawyers for Civil Rights based in Boston, said it is too early to tell whether or not the group will file a Title VI complaint. 

The goal is not to sue the state but rather “to get businesses to feel they can participate,” said RIBBA CEO and President Lisa Ranglin. Ranglin was prompted to contact Lawyers for Civil Rights after the organization filed a Title VI complaint against Boston’s Planning and Development Agency in 2020. Ranglin sought lawyers who were “even willing to listen” to RIBBA’s cause. 

Push for reform came after a state-commissioned study was conducted, ultimately revealing the discriminatory practices against minority-owned businesses. The study shows minority businesses received contracts and purchase orders significantly less often than they could maintain.

The letter stated, “Numerous steps–both race-neutral and race-conscious–are available to the State to break down exclusionary barriers and reduce these disparities.” But nothing has happened, according to the letter, even though “it is plain that less discriminatory alternatives to the State’s current contracting system exist.”

The letter does not threaten Rhode Island at the federal level, but does detail the legal obligations the state has to adhere to federal anti-discrimination laws. 

Given a $3 million state minority business accelerator program, Ranglin was encouraged to get lawyers involved with RIBBA’s cause. Ranglin alleges the program, run through Rhode Island Commerce, did not deliver on its obligation to advocate and support minority businesses. Instead, the funds were distributed to other organizations outside of this scope.

In an email, Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Administration, said the state is working toward improving minority and women-business contracting.

Hart provided evidence of the increased mandated participation, outlined in the 2024 budget, to jump from 10% to 15%. In addition, there will be a disparity study released every five years, beginning in 2025, as requested by McKee. New software to manage the business contracts will also be incorporated.