When Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston recently called for the county to spend an estimated $300,000 – or perhaps more – on a broad-based disparity study, he got a lot of push back very fast from people in the county who see it as an unnecessary expenditure at a time when county funds are tight.  However, despite that, Alston has been pushing hard to get that funding – and it turns out that he’s now getting some support from both blacks and whites in the community.

The proposed disparity study would assess the availability in Guilford County of black-owned businesses that the county could use to fill its construction contracts, service contracts and other needs.  Alston argued recently that the study would help Guilford County have a more diverse set of recipients for its construction and service contracts, and it would, he said, also help the county avoid lawsuits in the future.  He added that it would give the county commissioners a lot of ammunition to respond with if any company came to the county and said they simply couldn’t find any black firms to help do the work on a county project.

The proposed move has seen a lot of vocal support from those most affected – people connected with minority-owned construction and service firms – however, this week a letter to the Rhino Times,signed by 30 people with no apparent direct interest in the outcome, showed support for the move.

John Moyle, who’s listed at www.meetup.com, as a co-organizer of the founder of the Guilford Anti-Racism Alliance, was the first signature.

Alston, after reviewing the letter, said that it wasn’t something he played any role in and he added that it came from outside the usual circles he sees support from.  Alston also said that he’s very pleased to know that the support for this effort, in this case, is coming largely from whites in the community.

“Not all white people hate me and not all black people love me,” Alston said.

The commissioner added that he does believe the money would be very well spent and the study is something the county badly needs.  He said the subject will be discussed when the Guilford County Board of Commissioners meets on Thursday, April 18 – when Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing is expected to bring back an estimated cost for the disparity study.

The letter to the editor referenced a recent Rhino Timesarticle that reported on a Facebook attack on Alston after Alston made the request to have Lawing estimate the cost of the disparity study that would evaluate the availability of black-owned businesses in the area.

The letter points out that the objective of the assessment is “to increase the participation of black-owned businesses in county construction contracts and other contracts going forward,” and adds, “It’s unfortunate Mr. Alston has been made a standard lightning rod by those who object to any efforts to promote racial equity in Guilford County.  But, in this case, as in all such cases, we need to get past personalities and try to understand and address the substance of the underlying issues.”

The letter goes on to expound on the difficulties faced consistently by black contractors.

“Getting a sub-contracted job requires more than simply presenting the best price for reliability and quality work,” it states. “People who hire out sub-contract work are responsible for the work done by those subcontractors, and other things being equal, a contractor will do business with those he has had success with in the past.  Additionally, in a town the size of Greensboro, personal relationships between the people involved result in a natural tendency to give work to your friends, rather than ‘outsiders.’”

The letter states that racial bias in Greensboro is “real, pervasive, and often difficult to see,” and it adds that the current system can make it very difficult for minority-owned businesses to gain entry into the marketplace and work themselves into the existing network of contractors.

“Qualifications, reliability, and ability to work at competitive prices are often not the deciding factors,” the letter states.

The 30 advocates for the disparity study argue that the assessment proposed by Alston is just a single step in a move toward a more level playing field for black-owned businesses.

That letter concludes: “We believe anyone who wants to see Guilford County prosper and grow should recognize that we will prosper and grow fastest when we all prosper together.  We believe we should all support efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate obstacles in the system that exclude groups of people eager and able to make their contribution.”

Alston began the push for the new disparity study after he and the two other black county commissioners were upset in late February when the Guilford County Board of Commissioners awarded a $12-million construction contract to a Winston-Salem based firm that plans on using virtually no black-owned companies as subcontractors.