The telephone at the DC area home of Marsha Coleman-Adebayo began ringing non-stop after the story broke recently about the hasty firing of U.S. Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod on false charges of being a racist.
Outraged callers wanted not just to express sympathy over Sherrod’s mistreatment but also to offer continuing support for Coleman-Adebayo, whose epic battle with a federal agency over despicable employment discrimination and retaliation produced America’s first civil rights law of the 21st Century.
Over a dozen years ago Coleman-Adebayo, an MIT-trained PhD, faced an onslaught from officials at the Environmental Protection Agency because she had spoken out about racism within that agency as well as about the EPA’s coddling of a U.S. corporation whose regulation-skirting mining practices in South Africa were seriously injuring workers there.
The gross mistreatment of Coleman-Adebayo by EPA officials so incensed both a conservative white Congressman and a progressive black Congresswoman that this unlikely pair collaborated on passage of the Notification and Federal Employee Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (NOFEAR).
That legislation makes federal agencies more accountable when found guilty of discriminating against employees or of trying to silence whistleblowers.
While simple fairness should have protected Sherrod (USDA officials refused to allow her to rebut the false charges before they forced her to resign), NOFEAR could cost the USDA plenty, should decide Sherrod sue over her treatment (she has already announced plans to bring a libel suit against her initial tormentor, Andrew Breitbart, the maker of a deceptively edited video clip of her speech to the NAACP).
“What happened to Ms. Sherrod happens to thousands of federal employees daily,” said Coleman-Adebayo, whose NOFEAR Coalition is demanding an investigation into the Sherrod firing.
“Sherrod was a political appointee, so I think it’s unlikely that her firing was done without some consultation with the White House,” said Coleman-Adebayo, brushing off claims by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Democratic governor of Iowa, that he alone had decided to pull the plug on Sherrod.
“How far did this firing go up the political chain of command? We think an investigation will find a cover-up,” Coleman-Adebayo said during a recent interview.
While the circumstances surrounding the firing of Sherrod and the bashing of Coleman-Adebayo differ, these two classic cases of workplace abuse over racial issues share similarities that give the lie to the ‘convention wisdom’ of conservatives regarding workplace discrimination complaints.
First of all, both Coleman-Adebayo and Sherrod sued federal agencies over charges of employment discrimination and won…Sherrod as part of a class-action lawsuit by black employees against the USDA, and Coleman-Adebayo as an individual against the EPA.
Courtroom success in employment discrimination lawsuits is rare, contrary to the vapid contention of FOX News talking-heads and Tea Party-types, who regularly make the false claim that so-called “activist judges” and/or “liberal-dominated” juries routinely dump bundles of dollars into the bank accounts of minorities who make allegedly trumped-up claims of workplace racism.
“Only two percent of federal employment discrimination complaints ever see the inside of a courtroom and far less than two percent prevail,” Coleman-Adebayo noted.
In another upending of conservative dogma–the claim that blacks only blame Republicans for racism–the abuse of both Coleman-Adebayo and Sherrod occurred under Democratic presidential administrations – that of Bill Clinton in the Coleman-Adebayo’s case and that of Barack Obama in Sherrod’s.
Meanwhile, there is one similarity in the two women’s cases: Just as in Coleman-Adebayo’s case, no EPA officials cited for racism/retaliation in her successful lawsuit were disciplined or discharged, so far no one at the USDA involved in the precipitous firing of Sherrod has received any public reprimand.
Embedded in the Sherrod firing over a false claim that she long ago had denied assistance to a poor white farmer, is an ugly irony: Her own father, a farmer murdered in Georgia by a white man who was never charged by the state’s all-white prosecutorial authorities, was one of thousands of black farmers who were routinely denied assistance by racist USDA officials.
The U.S. Senate meanwhile, just days after evidence had surfaced showing Sherrod had been the victim of a right-wing video fraud, once again refused to fund a long-resolved $1.2-billion court settlement awarded to black farmers ravaged by the USDA racism. It also failed to authorize funds for a $3.4-billion settlement in favor of Native Americans swindled out of royalties by the federal government.
“Shirley Sherrod was fired for allegedly discriminating against one white farmer (a false charge in the first place), when no one’s been fired for discriminating against 80,000 black farmers who are still awaiting payment from the settlement in our lawsuit,” said John Boyd, President of the National Black Farmers Association, during an interview on the syndicated radio program of civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton.
Typical of the codded treatment accorded racists within the federal government, in the Coleman-Adebayo case, her chief tormentors received not rebukes but promotions.
An action by President Obama compounded the insulting injury endured by Coleman-Adebayo. The president appointed former EPA head Carol Browner – the same Browner who had sanctioned the Clinton-era beat-down of Coleman-Adebayo – to be his Energy Czar. Browner had figured prominently as a defendant in Coleman-Adebayo’s successful lawsuit.
“The person found to be liable for racism, sexism and for sustaining a hostile work environment in here agency in my case now sits at the table with President Obama,” Coleman-Adebayo said angrily. Browner was also part of Obama’s transition team.
“Appointing Browner was the first indication for thousands of federal employees that this Administration has no commitment to justice,” continued Coleman-Adebayo.
A 2003 General Accounting Office report covering 1995-2002 (a period that includes much of Carol Browner’s tenure as EPA head) stated that the EPA did not have a specific process for determining whether managers involved in discrimination complaints did in fact discriminate and if so, whether those managers should be disciplined.
Problems with discrimination and retaliation persist at the EPA, according to federal records, despite reforms pledged by Lisa Jackson, Obama’s EPA Secretary and the first African-American to head that agency. Jackson was formerly head of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection.
According to federal EEOC data, 81 percent of the EPA’s “Senior-Level Officials/Managers” are white as are 78.4 percent of the “Mid-Level Officials/Managers.”
In 2009, EPA employees filed 12 race discrimination, 16 sex discrimination, 13 age discrimination and 21 reprisal complaints with the EEOC.
“Everyday, federal employees who stand up and speak out are shredded by the government,” Coleman-Adebayo said.
“EPA whistleblowers exposing the agency’s cozy relationship with BP are facing loss of their jobs,” she added. “The EPA allowed BP to use dispersants that are banned in England and Europe. The EPA sides with industry more than with the community it is charged with serving.”
Coleman-Adebayo case raises a cautionary concern about the Sherrod affair.
“It’s a terrible mistake to treat the Shirley Sherrod matter as an isolated incident, but that is what the media is doing,” she warns.
Linn Washington is a founding member of the new collectively-owned, journalist-run online newspaper ThisCantBeHappening. His work, and that of fellow journalists Dave Lindorff, John Grant and Charles Young, is available at: www.thiscantbehappening.net