Civil Liberties

Invisible Man


If an employer refuses to hire or to contract with someone because he's black, it's called discrimination. Unless, of course, it happens because of government regulations ostensibly designed to protect minorities. Then it's called affirmative action.

Confused? Consider the case of John Goode, the owner of Mr. Bones BBQ in Austin, Texas. From 1989 through 1996, through sub-contracts with concession vendors, Goode's Mr. Bones served patrons of special events at several city-owned venues, including Austin's convention center, the Palmer Auditorium, and the City Coliseum.

Goode's problems started in 1996, after an official investigation found discrimination in the city's contracting practices despite an existing affirmative action program. In response, Austin redoubled efforts to boost contracts with minority-and woman-owned businesses, setting quotas ranging from 10 percent to 32 perent for these firms. To spur cooperation in the business community, the city also instituted tough penalties for companies that didn't measure up to the new standards, including a five-year bar from city contracts and monetary fines.

Although African American, Goode felt he didn't need any help securing contracts. After all, he already had concession deals through Fine Host Corporation. So he refused to register with the city as officially black. But Fine Host Corporation was under pressure to meet the city's quota. In an August 2, 1996, letter ending their business arrangement, the company suggested that it was less interested in the quality of Goode's barbecue and more interested in the color of his skin. "Due to the lack of proof [of your minority status], we cannot continue this business relationship," wrote Fine Host management. "Our commitment to the City of Austin is to do our best to maintain a 25 percent concession with certified minority/women owned business enterprises."

Goode, who subsequently lost his business and house, filed suit against both the City of Austin and Fine Host for wrongful termination. In December 1998, a federal district judge dismissed the case on summary judgment, claiming Goode had no standing to sue, since the affirmative action program is designed to benefit him. The judge even assessed Goode an extra-special benefit: $6,850 in court costs incurred by the city and Fine Host.