DOVER — Many black men and women employed by the state of Delaware do not feel comfortable in the workplace environment, religious and community leaders allege.
They claim a culture of discrimination exists, where black employees are sometimes unfairly passed over for promotions, where they must endure racial insults, and where they are punished if they report improper treatment.
To that end, leaders from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Interdenominational Ministers Alliance and Interdenominational Ministers Action Council have formed a committee to hear complaints of racism from state workers.
Hearings were held in New Castle in July and in Kent this month, and state employees will have a chance to testify behind closed doors in Sussex three times this week.
They can speak at Friendship Baptist Church in Lewes on Tuesday, at Immanuel House of Praise in Seaford on Wednesday and at Mount Pisgah AME Church in Laurel on Thursday.
The impetus comes from complaints church leaders heard from members of their congregation.
“We felt like, rather than just instances of racism or discrimination, that it seemed like there’s a culture of racism within the state government,” the Rev. Lawrence Livingston said. He’s the pastor of Mother African Union Church in Wilmington and serves on the IMAC executive committee.
Organizers behind the hearings told of a black worker finding a racist book on their desk, managers calling black men “boys” and an employee walking past a trail of banana peels in an office.
Some people had to seek counseling due to the insults they suffered, Mr. Livingston said.
To address the culture issue some believe pervades the state, the religious organizations partnered with the NAACP.
Mr. Livingston believes state discrimination is an issue that existed long before Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, took office in January 2009.
The governor has been open to the concerns of employees, he said. Leaders met with him twice recently and will present their findings to him and members of the General Assembly next month.
Gov. Markell “expects all state employees to be treated fairly and for their concerns to be addressed respectfully,” a spokeswoman for his office said. In advance of the July hearings, Gov. Markell released an email providing steps employees who believe they have been discriminated against can take.
“You have my assurance that you will be protected against acts of reprisal for reporting harassment or discrimination, and management will be held accountable for adhering to and promoting our zero-tolerance policy,” he wrote. “In order to ensure we have policies and processes that are supportive of a workforce that is diverse and free from harassment and discrimination, a review of our existing policies and procedures is currently being conducted to ensure their effectiveness.”
The Rev. Michael Rogers, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Wilmington and president of IMA, noted the hearings are not intended as a way to judge the governor but to address issues in state government.
Nearly 51,000 people were employed by the state in at least part-time or temporary positions as of Aug. 1.
Discrimination is particularly prevalent in Kent and Sussex, alleged La Mar Gunn, president of the Central Delaware NAACP. The acts of racism he’s heard of are “beyond ridiculous,” he said.
“Once you cross the bridge, it’s the good old boy way,” he said.
While Mr. Rogers and Mr. Livingston avoided criticizing the governor, Mr. Gunn did not pull punches.
The governor has a “terrible record” in regard to race, he said. Mr. Gunn was engaged in a heated legal battle for Kent County recorder of deeds that dragged on months and saw the governor appoint his opponent, a Democrat, to the office when the two were ruled to have tied.
In August 2009, Gov. Markell issued Executive Order 8, which was designed to promote diversity and reduce discrimination.
However, a June report put together by IMAC and the NAACP states there has been no “significant improvement” in that time frame. Despite monthly meetings of the Governor’s Equal Employment Opportunity Council, “the evidence strongly suggests African-American employees are still subjected to discrimination and institutional racism, and they remain underrepresented in upper management positions in every state department.”
The Labor Department is the chief concern for several leaders in the push. Mr. Livingston noted the agency is supposed to be the “watchdog” for claims of mistreatment but has often been the site of harassment, while Mr. Gunn said the vast majority of race-related complaints provided to the department were dismissed.
Despite the problems leaders claim exist, Mr. Livingston is optimistic. Mr. Rogers was less certain, and Mr. Gunn said he believes the situation is bleaker. Several leaders expressed concerns workers would be reluctant to testify out of fear of being punished, but Gov. Markell has encouraged employees to speak up, a spokeswoman said.
As for how treatment compares in the public versus the private sectors, Mr. Livingston believes the culture in state government is “not necessarily worse” but mistreatment there is potentially has more impact.
“If people are experiencing discrimination in their secular or their jobs, who do they go to when the state is guilty of many of these infractions?” he said.
Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at firstname.lastname@example.org