A Seattle man has filed a federal lawsuit after being denied federal certification as a minority business owner.
Ralph Taylor was raised and identified as Caucasian, as listed on his birth certificate. Like many Americans in recent years, he took a DNA test in 2010 that indicated he was 4% Sub-Saharan African, in addition to being 90% European and 6& indigenous American.
As reported in the Washington Post, Taylor stated "I’ve always known that I’m multiracial”, despite looking Caucasian. He told the Post that he took the DNA test "just to confirm what we'd already known". The company that provided the results to Taylor's test is no longer providing ancestry genetic testing, and it's tests has been criticized as outdated.
But those test results were enough to allow Taylor to update his birth certificate to say that he is African-American, Native American and Caucasian. “I’m a certified black man,” he told The Post. “I’m certified black in all 50 states. But the federal government doesn’t recognize me". After he was rejected from a federal program for minority business owners that would have given him an advantage when competing for lucrative government contracts, Taylor sued. His case, which raises complicated questions about how race is defined, is pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
When the legal battle got its start Taylor applied to get his insurance agency certified as a minority-owned business by Washington state’s Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises. As the Seattle Times first reported, he was initially rejected on the grounds that he wasn’t visibly identifiable as a minority. But the agency didn’t give employees any guidelines about how to interpret applicants’ photos and didn’t define what exactly it meant to be “visibly identifiable” as a member of a minority group. After he filed an appeal, the agency reversed its decision and approved his application in March 2014. Weeks after getting the acceptance letter, Taylor applied to the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises again — this time to get certified as a minority for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. The agency asked him for additional proof that he identified as black or Native American.
Taylor said that he was a member of the NAACP, subscribed to Ebony magazine and was interested in black social issues. He also gave the agency a copy of a death certificate for a black woman who had died in 1916, but he was unable to prove that they were related. Many record depositories had been burned during the Civil War, he wrote, making it difficult to trace his genealogy. And because being Native American wasn’t socially acceptable back in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia during those days, he said, he didn’t have any proof of his Native American ancestry.
He was rejected.
“It is nonsensical for Mr. Taylor to claim that he has encountered social and economic disadvantage due to a heritage he was not aware of until the DNA test conducted in 2010,” the state’s letter said.
Taylor was frustrated by the inconsistency — how could he be a disadvantaged minority for the purpose of a state-level program but not a federal-level one? He decided to sue.
The Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises has not publicly commented on the lawsuit. Gigi Zenk, a former spokeswoman, told the Seattle Times that the office determines who qualifies as a minority on a case-by-case basis. “We work really hard to be fair. Nothing is just black and white,” she said.
In November 2016, a district court judge in Tacoma dismissed the lawsuit, describing Taylor’s focus on his genetic background as “misplaced.” His attorneys appealed the ruling that month. Oral arguments are scheduled to take place before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in December.
Taylor says that his lawsuit, now four years in the making, is entirely self-funded. He told the Seattle Times this month that he had spent up to $300,000 so far but declined to confirm that exact figure when speaking with The Washington Post.
But he’s not backing down.
“I told my attorneys, we’ll go to the Supreme Court if we have to,” he said.