Lack of racial diversity spans campus, Lexington businesses

When students head downtown, the rate of diversity is not unlike that which is seen around campus

Olivia Cooper, News Writer

More than 80 percent of Washington and Lee students are white, according to Forbes.

This stark statistic has prompted university President William Dudley to make increasing ethnic diversity a focus of his tenure. But in Lexington, racial homogeneity is as much of a local issue as it is a campus one.

Shane Gonsalves, owner of Sweet Treats Bakery on Washington Street, is one of only a few minority business owners in the city.

Born and raised in the Caribbean, Gonsalves said his upbringing in such a homogeneous region has led him to tend to not relate to conversations about increasing diversity among business owners.

“It’s hard for me to grasp the black and white thing,” Gonsalves said. “I didn’t grow up in that world.”

But according to recent census data, Lexington business ownership is far less diverse than the American average.

Executive Committee President Mason Grist, ‘18, who grew up in Lexington, said he notices the discrepancy.

“Given that lens, and the historic lens of Lexington, it would follow that the ownership of stores is passed down through families, and historically the most privileged families in Lexington have been white,” Grist said.

The United States Census Bureau defines minority groups according to race and ethnicity groupings, which categorize individuals as Hispanic, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, or some other race, according to the Bureau’s site.

Just under 30 percent of all American firms surveyed in 2012 were owned by members of ethnic minority groups, according to the Census Bureau. Across Virginia, 28.3 percent were minority-owned. But in the city of Lexington, that  figure was just 3.6 percent.

Only 25 of Lexington’s 689 businesses in 2012 were owned by ethnic minorities.

Despite this statistical disparity between Lexington and the rest of the country, Lexington Mayor Frank Friedman said he thinks the city has a relatively high level of diversity considering the culturally similar makeup of the area.

No recent census data exists for the ethnic composition of Lexington, but in 2016, 94.3 percent of surrounding Rockbridge County was reported as “white alone.”

“I would suggest that there are many minority-owned businesses in town, and they’re doing very well,” Friedman said.

Tracy Lyons, the Executive Director of the Lexington Chamber of Commerce, struck a similar tone. She said despite the lack of minority-owned businesses in Lexington, she is pleased with the current picture of business ownership in the city.

“We have kind of a good mix of business owners,” Lyons said. “When you throw in restaurants, and lodging, and hotels and attractions, we have a lot of diversity in that sense.”

Lyons said the Chamber provides a variety of services to all of its 480 member organizations.

“We engage with them on many different levels, including networking events and educational seminars,” Lyons said. “We provide opportunities and resources for them to build their business.”

Gonsalves said he appreciates that the Chamber of Commerce works to help all Lexington establishments improve their operations, but he does not want to see any initiatives implemented to help minority businesses specifically.

“It’s good to try to generate revenue for the city overall, but I don’t think that would be fair,” Gonsalves said. “I would be against that.”

Other local business owners downplayed Lexington’s lack of cultural diversity as well.

Stelio Tripodianos and his mother, Irene, have owned Niko’s, a Greek diner in Lexington, for 22 years. They are not technically considered members of an ethnic minority, but they said that as immigrants they feel they have had a similar experience as their neighboring minority business owners.

“The city treats us the same as everybody else,” Irene Tripodianos said.

Overall, Irene Tripodianos said she’s happy with the experience she’s had as a business owner in Lexington.

“We are happy in this town. People like us,” Irene Tripodianos said. “Being here has made us proud of the community.”

But Washington and Lee Professor Ted DeLaney said he thinks the level of diversity in business ownership in Lexington—or lack thereof—is a problem that cannot be ignored.

“Given the history of this community, I think it would be to this community’s advantage to be more inclusive,” DeLaney said.