In 1989, the Business Enterprise for Minorities, Women, and Persons with Disabilities Act, or BEP, was adopted into law in Illinois. The act intended to eliminate the barriers that had been blocking small businesses owned by historically disadvantaged minorities from receiving state contracts.
"That's a state law, but you wouldn't know it," said Illinois Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford (4th), who represents parts of Oak Park and River Forest. "These are some of the things that have blown my mind."
Lightford and members of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, which she chairs, believe they are governing in a uniquely unprecedented moment — when laws and policies that are as monumental as the historic challenges they seek to remedy stand a good chance of passing.
Before George Floyd's death in May prompted a national racial reckoning, laws like the BEP Act were par for the course — big in name only, Lightford said.
Some two decades after that law passed, the percentage of the state budget spent with Black-owned businesses is one-tenth of 1 percent, according to data in a 2018 Fair Practices in Contracting Task Force report.
Even the creation of the task force, which former Gov. Bruce Rauner formed in 2016 with no power to enforce the lofty goals in the BEP Act, was largely symbolic, Lightford argues. In 2018, as Rauner was running for re-election, the senator blasted the former governor's motivations for signing an executive order similar to the one creating the task force.
"Records show that in January 2015, Gov. Rauner announced an executive order studying barriers in contracting for minority businesses," Lightford's office explained in a statement released that year.
"Then in November 2015, the Rauner administration secretly waived minority participation requirements for a $94 million state contract. … In 2016, we established the Fair Practices in Contracting Task Force. Here we are two years later, conveniently when the governor's running for re-election, he signs another order to address the same disparities — I'm tired of the political games."
Lightford may be at the peak of her powers heading into the November veto session, which marks a sudden turn of the tide. In May, not long after she narrowly lost a historic bid to become Senate President to Oak Park Sen. Don Harmon (38th), Lightford resigned as chairperson of the Black Caucus — only to be reinstated in July.
"Since I initially offered my resignation as chairman of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus, the world has changed," Lightford said at the time. "And here in Illinois we too have a historic opportunity before us to bring about change, but it will not last forever."
"I think the George Floyd murder has brought the caucus, and Black people in general, together," said state Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch (7th), who was influential in persuading Lightford to continue as chairperson of the caucus.
"I think Leader Lightford's returning as our chair is an indication of that," Welch added. "This is not a time to be divided. It's a time to be united."
In July, Lightford stated that the caucus was firmly united behind addressing "four pillars of issues where change is desperately needed: Criminal justice reform; violence reduction and police accountability; health care and human services; economic access, equity and opportunity; and education and workforce development."
Last week, Lightford said the caucus is preparing to file the first of a series of bills meant to fundamentally address those issues. The bills will be heard in joint committee hearings in November, she said.
One of the most significant proposals the caucus is working on is the creation of an oversight body that can actually enforce legislation like the BEP Act, Lightford said.
"We're in a moment in time where we can use our leverage to ensure we do everything we can to remove systemic racism and oppression," she said. "There has been quite a bit of legislation, that the Black Caucus has pushed for, that has never been implemented. We have to have accountability and there has to be that hammer, that oversight, ensuring that if you don't follow the law, this happens to you."
In the last several months, Welch has introduced a flurry of proposals designed to push the state to take more seriously its ostensible goals of addressing systemic racism.
Earlier this month, he wrote an open letter to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, urging him to take enforcement action against Medicaid providers that fail to meet contracting goals for minority- and women-owned business.
Welch sent the letter to Raul a month after he sent Gov. J.B. Pritzker an open letter, "imploring the governor's administration to prevent social equity licenses from being awarded to companies with straw ownership schemes," according to a statement Welch's office released in July.
Welch referenced a Cincinnati Enquirer report showing that the state of Ohio had busted a number of straw ownership schemes in which companies posed as Black-owned businesses to try to secure marijuana dispensary licenses.
Welch has also been vocal about racial inequities in the banking industries and college athletics. Earlier this month, he sent letters to executives at some of the largest banks in the Chicago area, urging them to release data on their contracts with Black-owned businesses. And last year, he sponsored a bill that would allow student-athletes in Illinois, many of whom are Black, to earn compensation from the use of their name, image or likeness.
Last week, Welch said that Blacks are "just being left out across the board," adding that a recent retreat of Black Caucus members "recognized what our power is."
"They're going to learn very quickly that things won't make it out of committee if the dollars aren't flowing into our communities," he said. "They can doubt us if they want to, but we're more invigorated than ever."
State Representatives La Shawn K. Ford (8th) and Camille Y. Lilly (78th), both of whom are also members of the Black Caucus, struck a similar note of resolve during a press conference, Aug. 12, in the wake of the looting that broke out on the Magnificent Mile on Aug. 10.
"Our social polices don't take into account human rights," Lilly said. "Those issues are not being taken into account, which our young people are looking at. … We have failed generations for decades."
"After that last round of looting last week in Chicago, I believe now more than ever that Black people are hurting and we need to help," Ford said, before calling for more resources in Black communities to deal with issues like mental health, behavioral health and substance abuse disorder.
Last week, Lightford was not understated in describing just how monumental an opportunity Black lawmakers have in the months ahead.
"This chance we have, everybody is watching," she said. "This is biblical. This is it. I saw every nationality on those [marches] with signs saying 'Black Lives Matter' or 'Enough is Enough' or 'I can't breathe' or no 'Justice, No Peace'. … We have a charge. We have to develop a strong pathway toward transforming our community."
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