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VA will be investigated after ‘staggering accounts of racism and discrimination,’ Sen. Warren says

By ALEX HORTON | The Washington Post | Published: October 1, 2020

The Government Accountability Office will investigate claims of systemic racism within the Department of Veterans Affairs, lawmakers said Thursday, two months after a government union said most of its surveyed members saw racism as a problem inside the agency.

The survey of 1,500 union members who are VA employees concluded that nearly 80% of staffers said racism is a moderate or serious issue, with more than half reporting they witnessed racism aimed at veterans, according to the American Federation of Government Employees.

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, requested the probe after the survey was released in August. The watchdog agency agreed to audit VA on Sept. 22, according to a letter sent by the Government Accountability Office to the senators.

“The GAO agreeing to conduct an independent audit is a good first step towards confronting and addressing the staggering accounts of racism and discrimination reported by VA employees and veterans,” Warren said in a statement. “VA is the second biggest agency in our entire federal government and it’s crucial that we root out systemic racism at the agency and all institutions.”

The audit will begin in about six months, according to the GAO’s letter.

“VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form,” agency spokeswoman Christina Noel said in a statement. “The senators’ request to GAO is nothing more than a shameful attempt to besmirch the reputations of hundreds of thousands of dedicated career government employees at VA.”

In 2019, the agency substantiated 70 claims of equal opportunity violations, Noel said in August, noting VA’s workforce includes about 400,000 employees. The union represents about 270,000 of them, according to AFGE.

About 40% of all VA employees are minorities, the agency said.

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May prompted waves of reckonings over race and racism in the U.S. But VA employees told The Washington Post in August that racial tensions within VA’s vast network of hospitals, clinics and offices have been apparent long before this summer.

In their initial request, Warren and Schatz described accusations of racism at multiple VA facilities, including at the Kansas City VA Medical Center in Missouri, where Black employees have held occasional protests over alleged discrimination.

At an event to mark Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S., Black employees became “living display” pieces, performing as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman and Floyd, according to two medical center staffers and internal emails obtained by The Post.

One staffer, speaking on the condition of anonymity over a fear of retaliation, told The Post they were urged by senior leaders at the medical center to dress as their characters in period clothing. A spokeswoman for the hospital denied the employees’ claims and described the event as “voluntary.”

Employees at various other VA facilities said they were passed over for promotions because of their race, found few nonwhite senior leaders at their hospitals and encountered the n-word openly in the workplace.

Geddes Scott, president of AFGE local 1988 and a licensed practical nurse at the St. Albans Community Living Center in New York City, told The Post in August that he saw white and Black veterans treated differently while in crisis. Black veterans were tossed out for aggressive behavior that was overlooked for white veterans, he said.