Jim Crow at EPA: Driving Ms. Browner
November 22, 2000
Over the past eight years, Environmental Protection Agency director Carol Browner has visited Chicago more than a dozen times. Each time she comes to the Windy City, Browner has requested that Ronald Harris, an EPA staffer at the Region 5 headquarters, serve as her driver and gofer. At first, Harris felt honored. But then he began to wonder if he wasn’t being singled out for malign reasons. Harris is black.
When confronted by these problems, Carol Browner shrugged as if to say ‘What’s the big deal?’ “I look forward to going to Chicago so that Mr. Harris can drive me,” Browner testified at an Oct. 4 hearing before the House Committee on Science, which was investigating charges of whistle-blower abuse inside the federal government. The big deal is that racism appears to be running rampant throughout Browner’s agency, and she has done nothing to stem it.
Take the case of Anita Nickens, who works as a mid-level staffer at the EPA’s American Indian Environmental Office. In 1993, she was one of six EPA employees on a staff retreat at a lodge on the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. She was the only black in the group. Just prior to Carol Browner’s arrival at the lodge, a supervisor instructed Nickens to go and scrub the toilet. “Director Browner does not use the toilet behind anyone else.” Nickens was told.
Nickens says she was repulsed by the order, but did the job because she feared retaliation. Later, she overheard her supervisor bragging about this humiliating order to others. “I went back into my room, locked myself in and cried,” Nickens recalls. “I was so embarrassed, and blamed myself for giving in to that request. I feel like I let down other black women. ” When Nickens filed a complaint, she was punished by the agency.
In August, a U.S. District Court awarded Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo $600,000 in a suit brought against the EPA. The court ruled that Coleman-Abedayo had been subjected to racial discrimination and a hostile work environment. Coleman-Adebayo, an EPA program director, says that she was routinely passed over for promotions at EPA despite the fact that she holds a doctoral degree. She says a colleague told her that she didn’t get promoted because she was “uppity.” Coleman-Adebayo recounted a scene that she says is all-too-familiar for blacks inside the EPA. “I was the only black person at a staff meeting, and one of the others in the room called me ‘an honorary white male,'” Coleman-Adebayo said.
Coleman-Adebayo noted that while African-Americans represent only 17 percent of the EPA work force, they represent 57 percent of those fired by the Agency. “The EPA is a 21st century plantation,” Coleman-Adebayo said. “Promising careers have been destroyed and other colleagues have suffered stress-related illnesses and perhaps even early death, like Lilian Peasant (an EPA staffer who was the victim of abuse and harassment). Many blacks have seen their lives compromised and aspirations crushed.”
In testimony before the House Science Committee, Coleman described how racism at the highest levels of EPA has impeded the agency’s willingness to help African nations address toxic waste problems and other issues. “Because Ms. Browner fails to act, U.S. foreign policy suffers, as well. For example, on a trip to South Africa during a Gore/Mbeki commission meeting (a meeting chaired by Vice President Al Gore and South African President Thabo Mbeki), the Assistant EPA Administrator for International Activities referred to Peter Mokaba, then Deputy Minister of the Environment in South Africa and a hero in the struggle for freedom in that country as a “necklacer” — that is a murderer — while talking about him with Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson. Mokaba has never been accused, much less convicted of any such crime! But, the EPA officials’ libelous acts and prejudices are allowed to taint the fabric of U.S. international environmental policy.
These complaints appear to be the rule, not the exception at EPA — an agency that is charged with fighting environmental racism. In September, more than 150 black EPA employees filed a class action suit against Browner’s agency, alleging widespread bias, discrimination and retaliatory practices. The suit catalogues an appalling record: of arbitrary performance reviews, crackdowns by supervisors on whistle-blowers, blacks being passed over for promotions, denied raises and punished for complaining about environmental and workplace hazards. The suit is backed by the NAACP.
The EPA’s Atlanta office has been plagued by racial problems. Most recently, the Department of Labor found EPA retaliated against Dr. Rose Russo for cooperating with an investigation into whistle-blower harassment at the agency. The EPA reassigned Dr. Russo from her position as lab director at the Georgia regional office effective Nov. 5, 2000 — a position she held for 16 years — to a position handling grants at EPA headquarters. In the Oct. 3 decision, the Department of Labor directed EPA to cancel the transfer because it was based on retaliation. “We’ve made these complaints known to Ms. Browner, but they have been ignored,” said Leroy Warren. Warren described Browner and her top staffers as being “arrogant,” “remote” and unwilling to punish racists inside the agency. As a result, the NAACP has asked Browner to resign.
Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair are coauthors of Al Gore: A User’s Manual, published by Verso. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at http://www.creators.com.