The Los Angeles City Claims Board awarded former Department of Transportation head Gloria Jeff $95,000 last week. That action has been appropriately lambasted in local editorials, which decried paying out a princely sum -- presumably to avoid a lawsuit -- to a city employee who served at the mayor's pleasure. It is unclear what the basis of a legal action might have been, but what is clear is a pernicious subtext to the Claims Board's action: When it comes to employment, the race card is a trump card.
Jeff, who is African American, was terminated after what the Los Angeles Times described as clashes with "members of the City Council and her own staff" and a "vote of no confidence" petition signed by 54 of the traffic officers in her department. She was replaced by another African American woman, Rita Robinson, who moved over from her job as head of the Bureau of Sanitation.
The City Council's three black members -- Jan Perry, Bernard C. Parks and Herb Wesson -- met with black pastors to discuss Jeff's termination. The Los Angeles Sentinel, the major African American newspaper in town, raised questions about "what is transpiring with black employees under the mayor's political umbrella." Frederick O. Murph, senior minister of Brookins Community African Methodist Episcopal Church, told Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa: "We don't want to see any more African Americans get fired. We don't want to see any more African Americans resigning." According to the mayor, about 20% of his appointed department heads are African American. This in a city with a black population of less than 10%.
The unmistakable message from black leaders was that Jeff was to be protected because of her minority status. Parks and Perry offered support for Jeff but didn't substantially counter objections to her tenure. In all, there was no ringing defense of Jeff's performance at the Transportation Department, no recitation of achievements -- rather, an invocation of race as the reason she should be retained.
Perry called Jeff "highly competent" but allowed that she also was "abrupt." And Perry also essentially said that one black administrator was as good as any other, as long as she was black: "Aren't we just playing a zero-sum game when we promote one African American woman because we removed another?"
Over at the Sentinel, Perry's notion of a zero-sum game was calculated a little differently. In one article reporting on Jeff's dismissal, a source said the mayor's ability to change department heads amounted to an "enormous amount of financial power without a vote from the City Council. ... It affects contracts, among other things."
With the Sentinel objecting to "Negro musical chairs," and Jeff's high-decibel attorney, Gloria Allred, asserting that "she was fired . . . in a manner . . . designed to inflict maximum career damage" -- it's hard not to conclude that the Claims Board opted for a quick check drawn on the public coffers to calm the waters. Placating intimations of racism and victimhood is a facile tool of elected officials when race matters come up.
The award to Jeff and the discussion about her firing leave a uniformly negative residue. What prevailed is a worldview in which racial/ethnic identity is more important than any other factor in judging a person. Jeff had to be a victim of bias because of her color, regardless of whether there were legitimate reasons for her dismissal.
This method of viewing the world -- solely through a prism of race and ethnicity -- has a serious and, one would assume, unintended side effect, no matter the intentions of those who employ it. It tells the world that colorblind practices that hold minorities to the same standards as others may simply not be good enough. If an at-will employee terminated by an elected official like Villaraigosa, with an unparalleled record of minority hiring, can extract a sizable monetary settlement, what are the prospects for a run-of-the-mill private employer who wants to terminate a minority employee when no bias is involved? A very public precedent has been set: If the merest assertion of bias is made, the expectations of reward will probably be there.
There are employers who will understand this and, when faced with a choice between hiring a non-minority or a minority, may well think twice about hiring the minority because of a fear that any decision to terminate or discipline the employee would be subject to allegations of racism -- based solely on the employee's minority status.
African American leaders who assert racism at the drop of a hat presume to be advancing the cause of minorities by being vigilant. In fact, they may be inadvertently adding to the discrimination in our country and doing their constituents, and the public, a grave disservice.