Black employees describe systemic racism in the VA

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES  Published: August 7, 2020

WASHINGTON — Black nurses being called “girl” at the Queens, N.Y., Department of Veterans Affairs campus. Plots to fire Black employees in Poplar Bluff, Mo. Cases of isolation and retaliation at the Kansas City, Mo., hospital, and a disproportionate amount of disciplinary actions against Black employees in Milwaukee.  

These incidents were among those described Friday by five current and former VA employees who claimed that racism was engrained in the VA and recently made worse by leaders who refused to address it.  

“I describe it as a mold — in the dark, secret. It’s quiet, but it’s affecting people of color throughout the VA,” said Marcellus Shields, a former VA employee at Wilmington, Delaware, and president of the local union chapter. “This is unacceptable. This is something that needs to be pulled out from the root.”  

The employees said they had requested that the VA Office on Inspector General investigate racism at their facilities, but it hadn’t been done. They urged Congress to hold a hearing on the subject and initiate its own probe into racism at the VA.  

The current and former employees spoke with reporters Friday on a call organized by the American Federation of Government Employees, a federal union that represents hundreds of thousands of VA workers. The union released survey results Friday that showed 78% of union members thought racism was a problem at the VA. Of members who responded to the survey, 55% said they had witnessed racial discrimination against veterans.  

When asked for a response to the allegations of discrimination, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel claimed the American Federation of Government Employees was “one of the least credible authorities in this country regarding harassment, abuse and unfair treatment.”  

She referenced sexual abuse and harassment allegations against the union’s former president, J. David Cox, who was forced to resign in February. Union employees and members filed a lawsuit in June that accuses current AFGE President Everett Kelley and other officials of shielding Cox from scrutiny.   

“VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form,” Noel said. “If AFGE’s stance against discrimination and harassment was as strong as VA’s, perhaps union leaders wouldn’t be subject to a lawsuit accusing them of fostering a culture that turned a blind eye to allegations of harassment.” 

When told about the VA’s response, Ibidun Roberts, an attorney with the American Federation of Government Employees, said the department was deflecting from the conversation about racism.  

“Their response is to deflect,” Roberts said. “That tells us everything we need to know and supports everything our panelists have said. Managers are behaving this way because look at the head of the VA.” 

The American Federation of Government Employees endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, last month. Kelley said the decision was made, in part, because the union has been ignored by President Donald Trump and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.  

While Wilkie has traveled the country to speak with various veterans organizations, he’s never addressed the union, Kelley said. On Friday, the union asked Wilkie to meet with the union and acknowledge that racism and discrimination exists at the agency.  

“We at least feel like if we sent a complaint to Vice President Biden to this magnitude that we would get some semblance of an answer,” Kelley said. “We believe a year from now if we’re able to speak it like it is and get a new president, we will begin to see some change.”

Racism has existed at the VA long before Trump took office, Kelley said. However, he believes it’s more widely accepted now.  

“I’m not saying this started yesterday,” Kelley said. “But previous administrations weren’t saying, ‘Go ahead and discriminate against people, it’s OK.’ That’s what we feel right now.”  

Charmayne Brown, a Navy veteran, retired VA nurse and the leader of the union chapter in Kansas City, Mo., is among a group of Black employees who have spoken out against their treatment at the Kansas City VA Medical Center. The NAACP and other civil rights organizations became involved this summer when 50 Black employees alleged racial discrimination and a hostile work environment at the facility.  

Brown said she began experiencing discrimination at the hospital in 2003, and retaliation led her to retire in 2019. During her time at the hospital, she was called “Aunt Jemima” and other derogatory names, she said. She witnessed doctors being racist toward Black patients, and her boss refused to communicate with her after she made formal complaints against him.  

Brown’s daughter currently works at the Kansas City facility. Since Brown began publicly speaking out, her daughter has now faced retaliation, she said.   

“I’m more determined now than ever before,” Brown said. “This nonsense has to stop. I endured it all my life. I watched my grandmother go through it. Now I have grandchildren old enough to enter the workforce, and I’m not going to stand by and watch them endure it. Enough is enough.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling