How the EPA Was Made to Clean Up Its Own Stain — Racism

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Inside Marsha Coleman-Adebayo there's a streak of Rosa Parks. Certainly, her decade-long struggle to clean up the racially toxic atmosphere at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could make history.

Thanks to her refusal to accept second-class treatment at the EPA, Congress will soon debate the first new civil rights law of the 21st century. NOFEAR — the Notification and Federal Employee Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2001 — would make federal agencies more accountable when they are found guilty of discriminating against their employees or trying to silence whistleblowers. It would make them more accountable by requiring them to pay the costs of discrimination and retaliation cases they lose out of their own budgets instead of a government-wide slush fund.

Its original cosponsors are one of the more unlikely political odd couples ever seen in Congress: ultra-conservative Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner and hyper-liberal Texas Democrat Shiela Jackson-Lee. Though they rarely agree on anything, Sensenbrenner and Jackson-Lee say Coleman-Adebayo's testimony at a congressional hearing last fall brought them together on the need for the law. Her story, says Sensenbrenner, made it abundantly clear that new laws "with teeth in them" were required to make the EPA clean up its act.

For Coleman-Adebayo, an MIT-trained political scientist who had held a string of impressive jobs at the United Nations and World Wildlife Fund, her first two years at the EPA during the administration of Bush the Elder were like laboring on a "21st-century plantation." During her earliest days on the job, "I got a very clear sense that I wasn't welcome," she recalls. Just how unwelcome became clear two years later on the eve of Bill Clinton's inaugural. A senior EPA executive told her that she could attend a routine staff meeting only because "we consider you an honorary white man."

Racial pollution is allowed to fester

The gibe came as a terrible shock. "I was humiliated. I was embarrassed," she says, still fuming about the incident. "I didn't go to the EPA to be the butt of racially insensitive remarks." But she thought those days were over when President Clinton in early 1993 selected Carol Browner, a noted liberal who had worked as an aide to Al Gore, as the EPA's new administrator. "I was pleased to see a woman with a reputation for being sensitive to civil rights issues become administrator," says Coleman-Adebayo, 48. "I thought she would start a dialogue about the abuses that were occurring inside the agency and try to correct them."

That was not to be. Instead of cleaning up the agency's racial pollution, says Coleman-Adebayo, Browner allowed it to fester. "She wasn't at all sympathetic to complaints about civil rights abuses," says Coleman-Adebayo. "We were treated like Negroes, to use a polite term. We were put in our place." In Coleman-Adebayo's case, that meant that even though her work as one of the EPA's representatives to the United Nations conference on women held in Beijing in 1995 won praise from Hillary Clinton and Browner herself, she got neither a raise nor a promised promotion.

After learning that she had been the only person on the otherwise all-white professional staff of the Office of International Affairs who did not receive an outstanding performance evaluation or annual bonus, Coleman-Adebayo filed a discrimination complaint with the EPA's office of civil rights. "And that," says Coleman-Adebayo, "is when the ceiling fell down on my head."

In short order, she says, her fulfilling work with the women's conference was taken away. Her white supervisor told her in an annual performance evaluation that "people just consider you to be uppity."

Then she was appointed executive secretary of a bilateral commission working group on environmental issues co-chaired by Vice President Gore and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, but not given the resources she needed to fulfill her duties. "The harassment really intensified," says Coleman-Adebayo. "We couldn't get any funding for projects. I couldn't get permission to travel to South Africa to meet with my counterparts there. It got so bad that the South African government offered to send me a plane ticket because they needed me to be at some meetings."

A large financial settlement

But for all the obstacles put in her way, Coleman-Adebayo couldn't believe that a top official of an administration hailed for its sensitivity to blacks would countenance such misconduct. Her lawyer sent Browner a letter in March 1997, declaring that Coleman-Adebayo thought that Browner was being "deliberately kept out of the loop" about the "crude and ham-fisted" treatment she was receiving from a network of "good old boys" who dominated the agency's middle management. She got back a letter from Browner's chief of staff saying that since Coleman-Adebayo's complaint was under investigation, Browner wouldn't discuss it. Frustrated, Coleman-Adebayo went to court. Last summer a jury in Washington found the EPA guilty of discriminating against her and awarded her $600,000 in damages (since reduced by the judge to $300,000).

A considerable victory. But Coleman-Adebayo's real triumph was in casting a spotlight on the bigotry that had festered inside many government departments under both Republicans and Democrats. For all Clinton's public embrace of black concerns, his administration did not work more effectively to clean up the mess than its do-nothing predecessor.

And as word of Coleman-Adebayo's case spread, scores of EPA workers came forward with tales of mistreatment at the hands of white supervisors. Among them was Anita Nickens, an EPA environmental specialist who tearfully described how, at a 1993 EPA event at which she was the only black employee present, she was ordered to clean up a toilet in anticipation of Browner's arrival. To make matters worse, Nickens recalled, her white supervisor later bragged about it to others. An association of 150 aggrieved employees is exploring filing a class-action discrimination suit against the EPA similar to those that have already been aimed at the FBI, Secret Service, Agriculture Department and other agencies.

At last October's congressional hearing, Browner, at times appearing close to tears, boasted that during her tenure minority representation in EPA's most senior ranks had more than tripled. But she could not explain why the EPA managers who discriminated against Coleman-Adebayo were still on the job and in some cases had even been promoted.

If the new Bush regime is serious about reaching out to blacks, it should join Sensenbrenner and Jackson-Lee to push for NOFEAR's enactment. The administration took a good first step earlier this month when the new EPA leader, former New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman, honored Browner's pledge that the EPA would not fight the verdict in Coleman-Adebayo's lawsuit.

That's one way of ensuring that no one ever has to go through an ordeal like hers again.