State employees testify about government racism

February 25, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer Sun Staff writers Marina Sarris and Robert Timberg contributed to this article.

About 200 state workers jammed a hearing room in Annapolis last night to complain that racism in state government is keeping them from new assignments, promotions, higher paying jobs and even judicial appointments.

Responding to an invitation from the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus to testify about instances of racial discrimination, nearly 100 current and former state workers signed up to speak.

They represented a broad cross-section of state government, including current or former employees of the Departments of Education, General Services and Health and Mental Hygiene, the Division of Parole and Probation, the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, the Office of Public Defenders and other agencies.

Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis alderman and veteran civil rights advocate in Maryland, called the hearing on racism "unprecedented."

"What makes it so important is it involves white-collar employees to blue-collar employees, all complaining of being treated VTC unfairly," he said. "And it is so widespread. There's not a state agency untouched by these allegations."

Two Baltimore Democrats, Dels. John D. Jefferies, the caucus chairman, and Clarence Davis, said that since budget cuts two years ago reduced the staff of the state Human Relations Commission from 73 to 42, the caucus has become a sounding board for discrimination complaints and members have been inundated with calls.

By prior agreement with Gov. William Donald Schaefer, no Cabinet secretaries testified at last night's hearing, although representatives of the governor's staff were present. Mr. Jefferies said Mr. Schaefer told him "if we could come up with specifics, he would address them."

"Generally, the Human Relations Commission, like every other area of state government, has sustained cuts, and that's going to affect how they deal with the workload," said Page W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary.

Although the cuts were significant, state officials believe the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could help with Maryland cases, Ms. Boinest said.

State Sen. Larry Young, another Baltimore Democrat, said the caucus divides complaints among its members to investigate. He said the caucus intends to hold similar hearings in Prince George's County and on the Eastern Shore, and hopes to have a preliminary report of its findings completed by June.

Some of last night's testimony involved the specific complaints of individual workers who said they were discriminated against because of their race by being denied a job transfer or a promotion. Some complained of being called racially offensive names, or of watching as co-workers distribute Ku Klux Klan membership applications.

Others spoke more generally about agencies in which most, if not all, of the supervisors were white -- and usually male -- with blacks in general and black women in particular holding the lower-paying jobs.

A longtime Parole and Probation employee complained that of some 300 division employees on the Eastern Shore only four were black and said, "They're treated like plantation hands."

At times, the witnesses used their allotted five minutes to urge others to speak out -- encouragements that were usually greeted by rousing applause from the nearly all-black audience.

Elvira M. White, a lawyer in the public defender's office, said racism kept her off judicial nominating lists and, after she finally made the lists, kept her from being appointed a judge.

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