Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Minority Set-Asides

The conversion from kick-boxer to one-man buffing crew probably won't qualify among the world's more common career moves. But then, Peter Vincent Ignatious Chin-Tai doesn't boast one of the world's more common resumes.

The son of a Cantonese herbalist who fled China before World War II, Chin-Tai grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. His mother, a mix of black and Chinese heritage, was a strict Catholic who sent him to parochial schools. By eleventh grade he'd had enough. He dropped out and devoted himself to kindling interest in kick-boxing on the island. The effort, he says, was squelched by greedy boxing promoters, though it survives in a set of yellowing newspaper clips he still proudly displays.

In 1986 he immigrated to Miami, certain that opportunity awaited him here. He has bounced from job to job since, briefly attending a trade school, teaching martial arts, and even, at one point, testing his mettle as an actor. "Miami Vice needed someone to play a Chinese gangster," Chin-Tai explains, his accent a strange marriage of Trenchtown and Canton. "But they told me I looked Filipino or something." Currently, he works part-time at the Police Athletic League gym in south Miami Beach.

This past December, however, the 32-year-old entrepreneur decided to go into business himself, securing an occupational license for a cleaning service. "Right now, the company's just me," he says, flashing a gap-toothed grin. "I plan to expand once I get some business." He figured a good place to start would be with the City of Miami, especially after his Jamaican friends told him about the Minority/Women Business Affairs Office.

In February he talked with Anne Whittaker, an office staffer who explained that the program was set up to help small, minority-owned companies by sending them city contract information, placing their names on a special minority business listing, and offering a limited number of set-aside contracts. The problem, Whittaker told him, was that only Hispanics, women, and blacks are eligible. She suggested Chin-Tai put the business in his wife's name.

"I said, ~`What? Are you crazy?' I'm more minority than anyone I know," huffs the would-be janitorial magnate. Chin-Tai took his beef to city hall, appearing before city commissioners on March 18 with three pointed questions: Why are Asians excluded by the Minority/Women Business Affairs program? Does the commission have an interest in including them? And finally, if they aren't a minority, what does the City of Miami consider Asians?

Maybe it was his inimitable lilt. Or his flat-top haircut. Or his baby face. For whatever reason, the room fell into temporary confusion. Finally, Judy Carter, assistant director in charge of the Minority/Women Business Affairs Office, ventured the opinion that the city's ordinance follows "federal guidelines," which state that an ethnic group that makes up less than two percent of the city's total population is not, officially, a minority.

"See, you're too minority to be considered minority," observed Mayor Xavier Suarez, addressing Chin-Tai. "Now, Hispanics are so minority in the city that we're a majority. Figure that one out." Slightly bemused, the mayor proposed that Asian firms applying for city contracts somehow be flagged. Before a discussion could ensue, Commissioner Miller Dawkins seized the floor.

"Mr. Mayor," he boomed, in his timeless, grandstanding baritone. "Let me bring this to a head." He turned to Chin-Tai. "Sir, I want you to bid on everything at the city of Miami. Send me a copy of your bid, and I will check to make sure we got a decent deal out of this. I don't need nobody else to tell me how to do this. And if you don't get bid sheets from them every two or three days, call my office so I can ask them why they didn't mail them."

Initially, Chin-Tai regarded the outburst as a stunning victory over bureaucracy. But two weeks later, he isn't so sure. "They never addressed the real issue," he points out. "Which is whether Asians or Indians or other little minorities can get into this program."

The office's narrow definition of "minority," in fact, appears to belie the spirit in which it was established. As does its history. The original minority business affairs ordinance, passed by the City Commission in 1984, sought to redress previous discrimination by ensuring that at least 50 percent of city goods and services be provided by black and Hispanic firms. Two years later, women were added to the list, and the program's goals were amended. The city aimed to farm out seventeen percent of its business to each group.

As Suarez's comment suggests, the program has been less than revolutionary. Attracting businesses has not been a problem. From fiscal year 1986-87 to 1989-90, for example, the number of businesses registered through the office jumped from 849 to 1182. Of those, 445 were black-, 439 Hispanic-, and 298 female-owned. But while the number of registered firms has increased across the board, annual reports suggest that only one group has benefited substantially from the program's measures: Hispanics.

In fiscal year 1987-88, for instance, the dollar percentage of total city purchases that went to Hispanics was 24 percent, while blacks accounted for 3.2 percent, and women less than 2 percent. By fiscal year 1989-90, Hispanic-owned businesses were raking in more than 48 percent of city purchases - or $16.4 million in contracts - compared to 4.6 percent for blacks and 5 percent for women.

Adrienne Macbeth, who headed the office for its first six years, concedes that the program has lost a sense of mission. "You look at the numbers and what it comes down to is that our minority criterion has outlived itself, at least in relation to Hispanics," says Macbeth, currently a deputy director with the city's Department of Solid Waste.

She says she's advised city commissioners, who review the office's activities annually, to redefine the program so that it aids all companies that are economically disadvantaged, not just those that fit into an ethnic category. "That's the way to level the playing field," she says. "But that notion doesn't appear to have political support." Peter Chin-Tai, she adds, is not the first Asian to lobby the council about the Minority/Women Business Affairs program. Back in 1989, an Indian engineer also came before the council, with equally frustrating results.

But Chin-Tai may be the first Asian to force the city commission's hand. He's determined to register his business with the Minority/Women's Business Affairs Office, and vows to sue if rejected.

"He's definitely got a case if they turn him down," says Dick Lee, the Taiwanese attorney representing Chin-Tai. "It's unconstitutional. We're going to try to convince the city to change the language in the ordinance. I was surprised to see this kind of an ordinance from Miami because it's supposed to be such an international community."

But Ron Williams, director of the Department of General Services Administration, which oversees the office, maintains that applications from Asian-owned businesses will not be accepted until the city's ordinance changes. "It's not a sticky issue," he insists. "The ordinance is plain and simple. Somebody else decides `minority' for us. We don't.


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