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Biting the Hand That Needs

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"That is what systemic racism is," she adds. "A system is in place -- and it's perpetuated for three generations -- that has eliminated an entire section of the population. [City managers] cannot fix the problem by waiting for [minorities] to come in and apply."

Look around, and you'll see black lifeguards at the city's pools and parks every summer, but you'll find none on the beach. In her deposition Lamar says that she's been told by black applicants that the city won't hire black lifeguards because white tourists don't go to Fort Lauderdale "to see niggers on the beach."

Meanwhile, blacks are fixtures on beach maintenance crews. In fact, the first black hired for the job was McCree, in 1977. What's interesting to note, Lamar says, is that beach maintenance workers start work before dawn and finish by noon, a time when tourists are just starting to head to the beaches.

Lamar's report was never made public, her bosses say, because it was inaccurate. Larkin did not return phone calls for this story, but Panoch and Witschen say the report's conclusions were Lamar's opinions and not based in fact.

"Her draft was all screwed up, and that's one of the reasons she's not here any more," Panoch says. "Her job [was] to give conclusions based on facts, not on opinions."

But in depositions taken two weeks ago for Lamar's lawsuit, three black midlevel managers currently employed in the planning, public services, and city manager's departments claim they had either experienced or received reports of discriminatory employment practices.

"I wouldn't be so up in arms about this if it was an isolated incident," says Lamar's attorney, Reginald Clyne. "I get at least one or two calls a week from city employees [about discrimination]. I'm hoping that if I create a big enough stink, they will react by firing some of the top management and hiring people who will enforce the laws."

Since taking on Lamar's case in late 1996, Clyne says he's come across two dozen current and former employees with strong-enough cases to file formal complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). At least eight have filed formal complaints, and he's using the others to prove in court that Fort Lauderdale treats black and female employees more harshly than white male employees.

But city officials aren't too concerned.
"We get sued every day by people," Panoch says. "There's never been a big controversy in the city over racism. There's never been a big finding against the city over racism. Just because people say it doesn't mean it's there."

Katrenia McCutchen doesn't agree. A former member of the city's road crew, she says her male coworkers regularly made derogatory comments to her and her foreman told her that, when she felt the need to urinate, she was to do so on the side of the road, just like her coworkers. McCutchen also claims that, after arguing with a coworker over the use of an office telephone, she was suspended for five days for insubordination while her coworker wasn't disciplined at all. McCutchen eventually filed an EEOC complaint, alleging civil rights violations in the form of reprimands for things she didn't do. Meanwhile, her work performance was never questioned. McCutchen, who quit the road crew last August, says that, from the start, her male coworkers made her feel unwelcome.

"It was their territory, and I wasn't supposed to be there," she recalls. "They would say to me, 'You took a man's job. You took a job away from a man.' I didn't take a man's job. I'm qualified, I'm experienced, I earned it. But they have their own little clique of good ol' boys."

Regarding the issue of punishment, Clyne and Lamar claim that several minority city employees they've talked to don't have a problem with being disciplined for breaking the rules; it's just that whites are not punished nearly as harshly for breaking the same rules.

"There are definite discrepancies in how the road was smoothed for white males and not for blacks or women," Lamar says of her days with the city. "Whites were given alternatives in uncomfortable situations. Those were not things [managers] had to do, but things they would do for whites and not blacks. Management is subtle. It's not the '50s and '60s. Subtleties that are characteristic of the '90s are just as damaging and just as easily felt. And they're even more frustrating, because they are very difficult to prove."

Claims of discriminatory punishment are brushed aside by Witschen, who says the real issue is performance.

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Lucy Chabot

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