Racial bias pervades NIH, testimony to say Congress to hear complaints today

July 13, 1993|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- The National Institutes of Health, already besieged by allegations of sexual harassment, is also plagued by pervasive racial discrimination, NIH employees are expected to tell Congress today.

The NIH workers maintain that not only are African-Americans frequently passed over for promotions and blocked from higher management at the Bethesda-based facility, but they are often treated with disrespect and outright abuse.

Among those scheduled to testify today is Dr. Bernadine Healy, the Bush appointee who headed NIH for the last two years, until she stepped down June 30.

Dr. Healy said in May there was reason to believe that sexual and racial discrimination had long been a problem at the agency and formed a task force to investigate the charges.

Earlier this year, an outside investigator's report was made public charging that sexual harassment flourished within the agency, with younger female employees promised advancement in return for sex with male managers.

In May, the agency had received 130 new complaints of discrimination. Additional staff members have been hired in the last two months to deal with the allegations, and the agency has consolidated its Equal Employment Opportunity offices to make them more effective.

Rep. Albert R. Wynn, the freshman Maryland Democrat who represents some of the Washington suburbs, pushed for the hearing by a subcommittee of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee after constituents complained about racial discrimination at NIH, his aides said.

"Discrimination against blacks is pervasive," says Vincent A. Thomas, president of NIH's chapter of Blacks in Government, in written testimony prepared for today. "The environment is hostile and retaliatory and blacks are not accorded the same opportunities as non-blacks."

Among Mr. Thomas' charges:

* Blacks are often placed in clerical or technical jobs while whites with similar credentials are awarded professional or administrative posts.

* African-Americans stay in the same pay grade longer than whites and other groups, despite comparable experience or education.

* Statistics "consistently show that the higher the pay grade level, the lower the representation of blacks will be in that occupational category. This pattern is continued in the blue collar and other occupational categories."

* Workers attempting to file complaints of discrimination have been threatened with retaliation.

"Racism has run rampant for so long at NIH that it is flagrant," says Gladys Whitted, a NIH contracts specialist who is first vice president of the Blacks in Government branch at the agency.

'A plantation'

"It is a plantation for black folks. Supervisors have done things wrong for so long, they don't even know what right is," she said in an interview yesterday.

Charges of racial discrimination at NIH are not new. As far back as 1986, a report by the General Accounting Office concluded that blacks and women were underrepresented at NIH and that affirmative action goals were not being met.

Today's session, though, is the first by Congress to deal exclusively with racial problems at NIH.

Dr. Healy appointed six blacks to senior management posts during her two-year tenure, including the first black to head one of NIH's 20 institutes, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Her defenders maintain she strove to open up the ranks to both minorities and women.

Task force created

Dr. Healy also created a discrimination task force that included representatives from Blacks in Government, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and senior black managers at the agency, which has a permanent work force of 14,573 employees, 22 percent of whom are black.

Despite these steps, those scheduled to testify today maintain that little has changed.

Jalil Hameen Mutakabbir, NIH's black employment program manager, claims in her prepared testimony that a black female employee was physically assaulted by a white female co-worker and no disciplinary action was taken.

Ms. Mutakabbir says, according to her prepared testimony, that another black female employee has been "verbally, mentally, and emotionally abused by two of her white male managers." The woman's efforts to be reassigned have been futile, according to Ms. Mutakabbir, and the NIH Personnel Office and Office of Equal Opportunity have both been unresponsive.

Another allegation

W. Gregory Wims, president of the Montgomery County NAACP, is expected to tell the committee that out of the 500 nurses employed at NIH, not one African-American is in a managerial position.

Johanna Schneider, an NIH spokeswoman, took issue with those figures, saying that NIH employs 770 nurses and two African-Americans are in managerial posts.

Mr. Wims also maintains that in NIH's power plants, black and Hispanic employees work the night shift while "whites enjoy the day shifts. We found nepotism, at best, throughout the campus, an 'Old Boy' community at worst."

Theodore Blakeney, an NIH official who will not be at today's hearing, said when whites serve as acting directors of offices, they are frequently chosen to fill the post permanently. Blacks, he said, are not.

"It's just not a level playing field," said Mr. Blakeney, former director of NIH's equal employment opportunity division and currently acting director of an NIH program that helps minorities and women gain research funding. "On the surface, you can't tell. But when you look at the people in leadership roles, at contracts, at promotions, at pay, you can see the discrimination."

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