When `black' apparently was not quite black enough

September 03, 2002|By Michael Olesker

IN THE SPRING of 2001, Loyola College placed a job advertisement. The school needed a new assistant vice president for academic affairs and diversity. The last word, "diversity," is the key. It signals that self-conscious, and sometimes tortured, American effort to include all kinds of people in the national mix.

Denys Blell saw the advertisement and thought the job description fit him like a glove. He has a master's degree in African and Afro-American history. That spring, he was associate vice president for academic affairs and diversity at the University of South Florida. He had held the job for eight years.

Blell is, by birth, African-Lebanese. In the American shorthand, some might refer to him as a black man. But, according to Blell, Loyola College did not find him black enough.

Blell did not get the job. Now, in a lawsuit filed the other day in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, he says he was told by Loyola's hiring official, Vice President for Academic Affairs David Haddad, that "the African-American faculty (and Haddad, in response to their criticisms) needed to hire an African-American that was visibly black."

Blell claims that Haddad told him "that race and skin color were important issues because `Baltimore is predominantly black and the state of Maryland has a significant black presence.'" And he says he was not hired because he is "light-skinned, of Afro-Lebanese origin and not an African-American."

Loyola's response? Unfortunately, there is none. "In the best interests of all parties, Loyola College cannot address matters in litigation," says Willie Williams, one of the school's attorneys.

This is unfortunate. Blell's allegation implies not only insensitivity but stunning stupidity on the part of Loyola: insensitivity if it would make a hiring decision on such grounds, and stupidity if it would acknowledge it to anyone applying for a job.

Blell, 53, now director of education for a medical vocational school in Tampa, Fla., describes himself in his lawsuit as "light-skinned."

"Very light-skinned," he said during a lengthy telephone interview. "If you looked at me, you couldn't tell. People constantly ask me my background. I'm pigmentally ambiguous. And isn't that what we mean by diversity?"

"In this country," says Morton Edelstein, Blell's Baltimore-based attorney, "Blell would be considered a black man. But he's being discriminated against because he's not black enough."

Blell was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa. His mother was African and his father Lebanese. The two separated when Blell was a child. His mother moved to England.

Blell says he is writing a book about growing up in a variety of "mixed foster homes, East Indian, Lebanese, Muslim and Christian, and some with no religious affiliation. My father sent me to family. Then, to friends. Then, to anyone willing to take me in. In terms of religion and culture and race, I know diversity."

He moved to this country when he was 21 and came of age when America was entering some of the complex struggles over affirmative action and its various offshoots, designed to make up for generations in which racial minorities were kept out of the country's economic and educational mainstreams.

In the case of schools, positions such as Loyola's office of diversity are an attempt to redress that issue -- not only to bring more minorities onto campus but to help them feel comfortable once they arrive.

"Exactly the kind of work I've been doing in Florida," Blell says.

In July of last year, he says, he was asked to come to Loyola for a job interview. In a "Charge of Discrimination" that Blell filed with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, he says he was "continually questioned how African Americans perceive me, directly pertaining to the color of my skin and my national origin. ... It was clear that [Loyola] wanted a darker pigmented African American in the position. I was also told that my national origin was of concern."

Additionally perplexing: Blell says Haddad told him that African-American faculty members expected him "to hire somebody black for this position. He said they were upset because he'd turned down two previous black applicants."

After learning he hadn't gotten the job, Blell acknowledges, Haddad denied that pigment played any role in the decision. But Blell and his attorney say they have one other bit of evidence.

"An independent witness," Edelstein says, "who sat in the meetings about the hiring, and said the determining factor was the color of my client wasn't dark enough."

Neither Edelstein nor Blell will name the witness. And Loyola, unfortunately, is saying nothing at all at a time when -- if they have nothing to be ashamed of -- they should be denying it at the top of their lungs.

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