Things were going well for Reuben Canada, a Point Breeze resident and entrepreneur. His ginger, green tea and cayenne pepper beverage, Jin+Ja, is carried by Whole Foods and other stores around Philly. A Walmart buyer was hooked on the drink and was interested in picking up the line. But, the buyer suggested, it would be even better if Canada could get his business formally certified as minority-owned. The buyer referred Canada to the Minority Supplier Development Council (MSDC), which is a certifying agency approved not only by Fortune 500 companies, but also by the City of Philadelphia, for identifying minority-owned businesses. He submitted an application. Then, Canada says, things got weird.
He says the regional business certification director, Elizabeth Munoz-Ortiz, told him in a phone call, "While reviewing your application, I saw your passport photo. Based on your passport photo, it is not obvious that you are of African descent, so we will need additional proof of your African descent." She added, he claims, that the only acceptable form of proof would be a birth certificate of a parent that states their African lineage.
"I was blown away when I called for clarification on the 'African descent' request," Canada says. "The director told me I didn't look black enough and they needed more proof. I told her some black people my age have very little contact with their parent of 'African descent' and not by choice. She would [not] even accept a geneaology completed by Professor Henry Louis Gates that included the plantation where my ancestors were slaves. … My birth certificate has no indication of race."
Canada calls the whole experience "alienating and humiliating."
Wade Coclough, president of the Minority Supplier Development Council of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware, denies that a staffer would approve or deny an applicant based on a photograph. He says that all applicants have to provide the same proof of ethnicity, usually with a driver's license and birth certificate. He wouldn't say whether an expert geneaology might suffice, but said that Canada had not been denied and his application was still under review. "It's our job to stay as close as possible to the letter of the law for our certification policy. It's our job to adhere to the national policies."
Angela Dowd-Burton, executive director of Philadelphia's Office of Economic Opportunity, says the city has "not evaluated the specific procedures [MSDC] use, but they are an accepted certifying agency for the city." She says the city approved MSDC as a certifying agency in 2009 or 2010, and that this is the first such complaint she has heard. "We will certainly, you having brought this case to our attention, will certainly reach out to MSDC to understand better their practices. But because this is the first case of this kind, it raises an interest in understanding also what geneaologies or approach this gentleman used, and certainly the need for additional resources to determine race as a category."
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