U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben

The Past is Prologue

Dear Fellow Marylanders,

The 1960s and 70s were defined by incredible turmoil, yet monumental progress for civil rights and equity. Student-led protests and other demonstrations and civil unrest led to landmark legislation expanding civil rights and transformational federal programs that helped level the playing field for minority communities. Many of the same themes of this era are echoed today.

That was apparent, this week, as I watched the world premiere of Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round, the story of Jewish residents and Black students joining together to support the integration of Maryland’s Glen Echo Amusement Park in 1960. The very next day, I chaired a field hearing of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee at Bowie State University. We examined how minority owned businesses continue to face racial discrimination and how the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development program and Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA) programs, which were established to remedy these issues, are now under attack.

In 1969, Congress established the Minority Business Development Agency to help minority business enterprises (MBEs) overcome social and economic disadvantages that have limited their participation in the American economy. Support for MBEs were expanded with the 8(a) program which focused on small minority owned businesses. Over a half a century later, minority business owners still are facing some of the same discriminatory practices that historically limited their ability to compete in the marketplace.

During this week’s field hearing, entitled, “Promoting Opportunity: The Need for Targeted Federal Business Programs to Address Ongoing Racial Discrimination,” Natalia Luis, CEO for M Luis Construction and Products which has locations in Maryland, gave an account of the bullying and threatening she faced from white business owners:

“In the early 2000s when we began to bid as a general contractor, a prime in Baltimore City, several large white, male-owned companies came after us with everything they had. They tapped our phones. They went through our trash so frequently that we had to shred every document that left our office. They posted big, tough guys outside of our business and our temporary construction yards in an effort to intimidate us and our employees… [and] these bullies went to the extent of filming our employees and posting the video on social media with the title ‘Are These the Type of People We Want Working in America’.”

Gary Moore from the Maryland MBDA Business Center described a more recent instance of the disparate treatment minority business owners have received compared to their white counterparts that he hears about on a daily basis:

“When [my] client arrived at the meeting, he knew the minute he walked in, by the prime’s startled looks and subsequent questions, they were not expecting a person of color. Instead of conducting a normal low bid meeting, the questions shifted from the bid requirements to him as an individual. Statements were made such as ‘you’re very articulate,’ and questions were asked such as ‘how did you grow to have a company in double-digit millions of revenues?’ These are not statements and questions posed to Caucasian business owners I speak with.”

Despite the increase in minority businesses over more than five decades, minority business owners continue to face the same challenges. But now, the federal programs that provided a safety net and protection against discrimination are being chipped away – sometimes hacked away — due to targeted, purposeful attacks.

In July 2023, a U.S. District Court in Tennessee ruled that allowing minority-owned businesses to automatically qualify as socially disadvantaged in the 8(a) program, violated the Equal Protection Clause – a similar rationale to the Supreme Court’s ruling on the affirmative action case. More recently, in March 2024, a Texas district court judge ruled that the MBDA’s race and ethnicity-based preferences were unconstitutional and ordered the agency to discontinue using race or ethnicity as criteria for receiving MBDA Business Center services nationwide.

Maryland has done a better job of opening doors for entrepreneurship and small business ownership for minorities and women because of programs that were put in place not only at the federal level, but also the state level. Of the state’s small businesses, 44.6% are women-owned, 9.8% are Hispanic-owned, 28.28% are Black-owned and 10.46% are Asian-owned. Eradicating these programs, however, will have a downstream effect and impact every level of government and minority business owners everywhere. For this reason, we must continue to fight to protect and strengthen these programs. We cannot let them disappear.

Racial discrimination has plagued our country since its inception. Unfortunately, we have not been able to truly reckon with our past in a way that breaks down the historical and systemic barriers racial discrimination has created. We also cannot achieve meaningful progress without the government programs that were put in place to help address these issues. Minority businesses are a critical part of the backbone of our economy, and we need to be intentional about ensuring that they continue to succeed. This is why we must continue to fight to protect and strengthen these federal programs. 

As my good friend and mentor, Parren J. Mitchell, Maryland’s first Black congressman once said, “If you believe in fighting racism, you make a commitment for the rest of your life. There’s no getting off that train. You can’t say, ‘I’ve put five years in fighting racism and now I am finished.’ No, you are not finished. Our job is to fight it every day, to continue to shove it down, and when it rises up to shove it down even harder.” 

I will always remain committed to this fight.  

Thank you for your time. Please feel free to reply to this email with your thoughts on this or any other issue that is on your mind. I appreciate all the feedback from constituents.


Ben Cardin