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MADISON — Comcast Cable offers small business “resources and tools to elevate” small businesses. But not for small businesses owned by white men, according to a federal lawsuit filed by last week by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL).

WILL is suing Comcast Cable Communications Management LLC on behalf of four small business owners in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. The complaint alleges the Comcast RISE program violates a federal statute that “prohibits racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of private contracts.”

“Comcast is violating federal law by establishing strict racial qualifications for the Comcast RISE small business grant program. Federal law is clear that private institutions and businesses may not engage in race discrimination when making contracts,” said WILL’s Rick Esenberg, president and general counsel.

The Milwaukee-based civil rights firm, representing plaintiffs in Indiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, is asking the court for an injunction prohibiting Comcast from imposing racial qualifications in its small business program.

Comcast developed the initiative in 2020. Comcast Rise offers businesses a suite of services,” including consulting, creative production of a 30-second TV commercial, and a TV media schedule, among other things. If their application is selected, an applicant has the opportunity to enter into a contractual relationship with Comcast, under which Comcast would provide the promised resources and the businesses would grant Comcast rights of publicity and other terms.

But white male business owners need not apply.

Comcast’s website lays out the eligibility requirements, which contain an explicit racial qualification that “at least 51 percent [of the applying business must be] owned and operated by someone who identifies as Black, Indigenous, a Person of Color, or a female.”

The program is part of the company’s $100 million campaign to fight “injustice and inequality.”

“Black small-owned business owners keep our communities going and play an integral role in our nation’s growth. We’re proud to offer consulting, production, programming & grant services to entrepreneurs hit hardest by the pandemic. Learn more about Comcast RISE,” Comcast tweeted in launching the program.

Since 2020, Comcast has awarded more than 8,000 small businesses RISE grants, boasting grant recipients in 590 cities in 34 states. Applicants can apply for RISE grants until June.

The lawsuit alleges Comcast is fighting “injustice and inequality” with discrimination.

“Like most small business owners around the country, I could use some help. When I first learned about the Comcast RISE program, I had hoped that it was something that could help my business. But I soon learned that I’m not eligible because of the color of my skin,” said Christopher Moses, a plaintiff from Greenwood, Ind. Moses, a disabled veteran, opened All American Clean LLC with his wife in 2012.

“Race discrimination is always wrong. I hope Comcast changes this program and opens it up to all small business owners,” he said.

Spokespeople for the company did not return Wisconsin Spotlight’s emails seeking comment.

The multi-national telecomm conglomerate launched the program just months after winning a case before the U.S. Supreme Court but taking a beating in a protracted public-relations battle. In March 2020, the high court unanimously ruled in favor of Comcast in a lawsuit brought by black media mogul Byron Allen. Allen alleged the cable giant discriminated against him when it refused to carry channels operated by his television network, Entertainment Studios. The court agreed with Comcast’s legal argument in affirming a high bar for bringing suits under the 1866 Civil Rights Act.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the legal battle the most important civil rights case of the 2020 term, according to CNBC. 

Under the 156-year-old Civil Rights Act, all “persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right in every State and Territory to make and enforce contracts.” Specifically, Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 “prohibits racial discrimination in the making and enforcement of private contracts.”

The four business owners WILL represents would be eligible for RISE grants if the criteria were race neutral, the lawsuit states.

Ultimately, the business owners asking for a declaratory judgment that Comcast’s racial qualifications violate federal civil rights law.

This lawsuit is part of WILL’s Equality Under the Law Project. More information about this project can be found at DefendEquality.org.

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