Civil rights leaders call out SecVA, president over reports of racism at Veterans Affairs

Abbie Bennett
October 06, 2020 - 6:40 pm

Photo courtesy gop.gov

Days after a government watchdog announced it would investigate the Department of Veterans Affairs over allegations of widespread racism at the massive federal agency, emails went out canceling antiracism events at VA. 

One of those emails announced that the department was canceling an event on "antiracism resources and the impact of racism within VA" because of "reasons beyond our control."

The event won't be rescheduled, according to the email from VA's Health Services Research and Development office. VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said VA is "fully adhering to President Trump's directive and (White House) guidance," referring further questions to White House officials.

Now, civil rights leaders and union representatives are calling not only for an investigation of the department but Congressional hearings, protections for VA staff who came forward with discrimination reports and removal of VA leadership they say are implicated in "egregious acts of dehumanizing treatment of Black people on the VA property."

Veterans Affairs to be investigated after allegations from staff of widespread racism

On Tuesday, a group of those advocates and VA staff held a press conference on the allegations against VA and the president's recent executive order effectively banning antiracism training and education among federal employees, which some veterans posited as a reason for VA's cancelations. 

The advocates and former staff said they were "dismayed by the continued unjust treatment of Black VA employees and Black VA patients" and the "imminent danger" they say the president's new executive order poses for Black federal employees, particularly those at VA hospitals and clinics. They shared startling, emotional details of alleged mistreatment of Black VA staff and veteran patients which "reflect a national trend, including discrimination claims from Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Deleware, Kansas, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Florida and New York. 

In August, one of the largest unions representing federal employees, including hundreds of thousands of VA workers, released the results of a nationwide survey that showed 78% of VA staff reported that racism is a "moderate" to "serious" problem at the department. More than half -- 55% -- said they witnessed racial discrimination against veterans while at work.

The survey conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees included responses from about 1,500 VA workers and showed that 76% of employees who responded said they experienced racism while working at the department. AFGE says it represents about 270,000 of VA's more than 400,000 employees.

Following the release of those survey results, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, on Thursday asked that the Government Accountability Office investigate the "culture, policies and practices" of VA to "determine the extent to which systemic racism" affects workers and veterans. GAO accepted the request to investigate the department and said it will likely begin in about six months

Karen-Nicole Knapper, an Army veteran and former captain who earned two Bronze Medals for her service, said discrimination at VA is "corrosive to this nation's very soul." 

Charmayne "Charlie" Brown, a retired VA nurse and Gulf War veteran with decades of service at VA, said she experienced "absolute hatred for the color of my skin" at the department. 

She said a subordinate colleague kicked her and called her a "tar baby," a VA official referred to her as "Aunt Jemima" and "thumped" her on the head, among other incidents of egregious racism, discrimination and retaliation.

Brown also described an event at the Kansas City VA Medical Center to recognize Juneteenth, where Black workers were encouraged to participate in a "living museum" where they were asked to "dress up as their favorite slaves" including "Emmet Till, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King and George Floyd."

"I was horrified at that," she said. 

The menu for that event, Brown said, included "watermelon, strawberries, fried chicken and Kool-Aid."

Kansas City NAACP President Rev. Rodney Williams said his organization has met with and heard reports of racism from dozens of VA staffers since early this year.

VA staffers described systemic issues with promotions, pay and career advancement for employees of color at the department, along with physical attacks, sexual harassment and assault and more. They mentioned white VA staffers who are less qualified advancing through alleged widespread nepotism.

"We are here because of justice and fair play and equal opportunity for all VA employees," Williams said. "We want to demand real systematic and systemic change right now. We are here to draw the line in the sand. We are saying enough is enough. We have picked up the plow of justice and equality ... We understand that you are a powerful government agency but you need to understand that we are in the fight for the long haul." 

Veteran and advocate Pastor M. Brooks said VA leaders seemed largely unconcerned with reports of racism and "hostile work environments."

"This is not just a Kansas City problem, we're learning," Brooks said. "It seems to be systemic. This needs to be taken to the very top." 

The group of advocates also detailed why they said formal racial discrimination complaint numbers aren't being fully recorded by VA, including settlements involving money offers, "unusual settlements" and what the group referred to as "unethical tactics used to silence legitimate" racial discrimination complaints at VA. 

"I see a rise in systemic racism, I see retaliation, I see a number of good VA employees too afraid to speak up to what is going on with them," said Marcellus Shields, a former VA employee in Wilmington, Delaware and president of the local AFGE union chapter. 

The president's executive order could keep VA staff and patients of color from speaking out, Shields said. 

"It will silence the VA employees," he said. "If it is silenced there is no way to fix what is going on, there is no way to get at the root of the problem." 

Justice Gaston, a civil rights advocate and organizer with the Real Justice Network, who has led protests outside the Kansas City VA, said current employees have come to her to describe the discrimination and racism they've faced, and protesters have experienced threatening confrontations with white supremacists. Gaston and other advocates said VA staff are afraid of retaliation if they go public with their stories.

Advocates laid the blame expressly at the president's feet, and his administration, hurling criticisms all the way to the top of  VA and Secretary Robert Wilkie, who Shields accused of being a "card-carrying Confederate." 

"We have an administration that does not value my service simply because of my skin color," Knapper said. "This callous executive order is just one example of this. America has an enemy and that enemy is white supremacy." 

"President Trump is trying to do to racism and sexism what he did to COVID-19, which is pretend it doesn't exist," said Kevin Woolfolk, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Sheilds said VA workers, veterans and staff will continue to fight for equality and fair treatment at the department.

"It is rising every day ... It affects the care of veterans," Sheilds said. "We won't go silently into this dark night ... We will not take this lying down." 

Nearly 80% of Veterans Affairs staff say racism is a 'moderate to serious problem' at VA

As lawmakers call for investigation of reported racism at VA, workers plan protests

Black, Hispanic veterans twice as likely as white vets to test positive for COVID-19, VA study finds

Black, Hispanic veterans make up 23% of VA patients but nearly half of all VA COVID-19 cases

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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