In 1950, a Black man named Parren Mitchell applied for admission to graduate school at the University of Maryland in College Park. The university president said it was “inadvisable” for Blacks to attend College Park. Mitchell sued and won, becoming the first African American graduate student at College Park.
In 1963, Darryl Hill became the university’s first Black football player, and he went on to become the first Chairman of the National Minority Supplier Development Council. Indeed, some southerners back then felt Blacks had no business in their football stadiums. In 1970, twenty years after Mitchell applied to Maryland, Mitchell became the state’s first Black member of Congress, his most enduring legacy was his fight to enact bills to give special preferences Black business owners on the ground that blacks had been subjected to discrimination for generations.
Over a half a century after they made history at Maryland, their fight continues.
In 2014, Delegate Cheryl Glenn, who is now the chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, sponsored a bill creating a licensing commission for growers and processors of medical marijuana, and, last week, the Commission announced the fifteen companies that were awarded with licenses to grow — none of these licenses went to Black business leaders. Interestingly, one of the Black business leaders whose application was rejected is none other than Darryl Hill.
Part of the problem is the Commission did not provide extra weight to applications submitted by minority-owned businesses, because Delegate Christopher West raised concerns with the Office of the Attorney General, led by Brian Frosh, about preferences for minority-owned business, and the office agreed such preferences would be unconstitutional without a history of racial disparities in marijuana licensing to justify the move.
In doing so, the office essentially implied that it was opposed to affirmative action and that affirmative action was unconstitutional, but this year the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of affirmative action, rejecting a challenge from Abigail Fisher, a White woman who claimed the University of Texas at Austin had denied her admission based on her race. Abigail’s case attracted national headlines last December after Justice Antonin Scalia said, “I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many Blacks as possible,” and the case prompted many college-educated Blacks to share their academic achievements on social media with the hashtag #StayMadAbby.
In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness.’” He said the university’s diversity goals satisfy the constitutional requirement that government racial classifications advance a compelling interest. These same principles should apply to economic development in the State of Maryland.
Some say affirmative action is racist, but, in truth, what is more racist than claiming that only Whites can legally and competently produce a certain good in Maryland?
As for the Attorney General’s suggestion that preferences for minority-owned businesses would be unconstitutional without a history of racial disparities in marijuana licensing to justify the move, the fact of the matter is that sufficiently similar disparities do in, fact, exist. For example, in June of 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union found that Blacks were nearly four times as likely as Whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession in 2010, even though the two groups used the drug at similar rates.
So, after decades of Blacks being disproportionately locked up for marijuana-related crimes, the Commission’s refusal to provide extra weight to applications submitted by minority-owned business is a failure to do what is necessary to combat the nation’s legacy of racism in regulating this industry, and I hope Brian Frosh will reconsider his office’s position on this issue.
Finally, Delegate West suggested the minority-owned companies submitted inferior applications. Now I am not a dry snitch, but I can say, without a doubt, that the notion that Blacks would be inferior distributors of marijuana in 2016 is about as ridiculous as the notion that they couldn’t play football in 1963.
Colin Byrd is the founder of the Carter G. Woodson Society of Maryland.