For weeks, a new roof at a county government building at Shelby Farms Park has been the setting for a debate among Shelby County Commissioners about minority hiring by companies that do business with the county.
The commission delayed a vote on the $1.7 million contract with B Four Plied Inc. to put a new roof on the building at 1075 Mullins Station Road because the company employs minorities, but the vast majority of its employees are Hispanic and not African-American.
The commission approved the contract Monday, May 12, but not before the ongoing discussion about minorities and race reached a boiling point.
Pablo Pereyra, a real estate broker at the meeting on another item and a member of the local Hispanic Alliance, questioned who on the commission, which has no Hispanic commissioners, was representing Hispanic citizens.
“I know what it’s like to be a minority. I grew up in Memphis. I can tell you being a Hispanic in Memphis is definitely a minority of the minorities,” he said. “Am I any less American? Am I any less a minority? I challenge you to think clearly of the message that you are sending. We are living in a global economy.”
Commissioner Henri Brooks rejected the comparison.
“You asked to come here. We did not,” she said of African-American citizens. “And when we got here our condition was so ugly and so barbaric – don’t ever let that come out of your mouth again because you know what, that only hurts your case.”
Brooks made the same argument in 2009 during the commission’s debate on a nondiscrimination ordinance to include gay, lesbian and transgender citizens when some citizens compared the effort to protect their rights to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Brooks said Monday that her questions about the contract were not an attempt to exclude Hispanics.
“It’s about giving blacks living in Shelby County who are trying to get employment in Shelby County, who pay taxes – not to say that you don’t – but who have a history, where there is a pattern on intentional discrimination against black folks – to get or participate in government awards or what have you,” she said.
Commissioner Walter Bailey said he had a “suspicion” that the company may be discriminating against black applicants in hiring “since the roofing industry is replete with blacks.”
Commissioner Terry Roland said that amounted to a position of “you’re not considered a minority unless you are an African-American.”
“Are you going to tell me you’re going to vote against this when they have 76 percent minorities?” Roland asked. “If you vote against this, you need to be sued.”
But Bailey, an attorney, said federal civil rights statutes don’t permit an employer to prefer one minority group over another.