Edward DuBose NAACPOn the eve of state’s marquee referendum to authorize a one-cent sales tax to facilitate new transportation spending, the Georgia NAACP has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a probe into the state’s transportation department for alleged “longstanding, systemic and pernicious” discrimination in the selection of contractors.

The president of the Georgia conference of the NAACP, Edward DuBose, said in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that the department’s recent internal audit offered “irrefutable” evidence of the “deliberate practice of under-utilizing minority businesses, especially when those businesses are owned by African-Americans.”

Of nearly 5,000 state highway project, the study found only 2.4 percent of contracts were awarded to black vendors even as the agency’s own benchmark is fixed at 14 percent.

“Since there is a significant disparity between the number of contract issued to African-American and non-minority-owned businesses by the GDOT … we believe it is only prudent to hold the agency accountable to the American people and require that it explain any blatant racial disparities and glaring financial inequities in its contracting policies, practices and procedures,” the group’s letter reads.

The study also revealed that while roughly thirty percent of minority contractors had pursued highway projects, most were under-equipped and under-staffed than outfits of means.

But should a probe of the department’s contracting policies yield evidence of discrimination, DuBose asked the attorney general to prosecute agency heads under the Federal Disadvantaged Business Enterprise Program.

A transportation department spokeswoman said the NAACP had neither privately aired the group’s concerns nor did it submit a public comment during any one of the five public comment periods for the study. The press aide said the agency was therefore unable to respond to the allegation of tilted contracting.

“Therefore, it is impossible for us to respond to any purported particular criticism,” GDOT deputy press secretary Jill Goldberg said by email. “The allegation that the GA DOT willfully discriminates against any segment of the population is irresponsible.”

That the timing of the racial discrimination complaint comes just as voters will decide the fate of a controversial transportation tax was not lost on the group.

“Please note this disparity study comes on the heels of the most controversial transportation referendum in recent Georgia history,” DuBose writes. “With GDOT’s poor financial track record and over fourteen (14) billion dollars at stake, the T-SPLOSt referendum holds potentially devastating implications for Georgia should it pass.”

In much the same way the referendum has fractured normally-cohesive conservative constituencies, the measure has sharply divided local black pols.

A local NAACP county chief incurred the wrath of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a prominent advocate of the tax, last week after the civil rights campaigner said “certain blacks” had been coopted by wealthy white business leaders.

– James Richardson