When does anti-racism turn into Scarlet Letter-labelling?

When does anti-racism turn into Scarlet Letter-labelling? November 8, 2018

This is an article from the Tribune a week ago that I’d been meaning to write about:  “Cook County promoted former Chicago alderman once recommended for firing after allegedly saying, ‘I can’t stand these Mexicans’”  Its title in the print version is more succinct:  “County promoted worker after slurs about Mexicans.”

The long and short of it is this:  former Chicago Alderman Vilma Colom worked for the county as a labor hearing officer in 2016 when two workers overheard a personal phone call in which she appeared to be saying things highly insulting to Mexican immigrants.  They filed a complaint with the equal employment opportunity officer, and initially

The reviewing official recommended that she be fired, but Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s human resources chief instead ordered that Colom receive sensitivity training and monitoring.

Colom’s explanation for the overheard phone call was that this was a personal matter which she felt obliged to deal with because of multiple phone calls which she had previously ignored over the course of that workday.

[Colom] said several of her neighbors were on the other end of the line to discuss a building on their block that had squatters living in it, and they brought it to her attention because she is captain of their block club, the report said.

She said she had a conversation with the owner of the building, “who is of Mexican descent,” and said her neighbor told her, “There’s too many of them in the apartment. What do I do?” according to the report.

Colom further said that she had a hard time hearing the conversation, and repeated things her neighbors said, to confirm her understanding, and said that statements which her coworkers interpreted as insults were really just her repeating things in this way.

Was Colom being truthful?  Was she making up an explanatory story out of whole cloth?  Was it somewhere in-between — was she angry at the squatter-family and less-than-cautious about her language as a result?  What about her further explanation that

members of the department might have been angry about a disciplinary case she overturned approximately six or seven months ago

— is that credible?

The Tribune reports on the initial report and final outcome:

“Based upon the statements of complainant and witness #1, we find that (Colom) did make offensive comments about people from Mexico. Furthermore, we find that the comments were sufficiently egregious, given their nature and her position as a neutral party who is expected to hear cases impartially, that they rose to the level of harassment” in violation of ordinance and personnel rules, the report said.

In December 2016, [county human resources chief Velisha] Haddox reviewed the officer’s report and concluded she could not “in good conscience” say that the “totality” of the circumstances should lead to Colom’s firing.

Haddox said “the report describes a single incident in which an employee’s private conversation was overheard and interpreted with very little context, if any, as offensive and as representing the employee’s personal views. The facts to support this conclusion, however, are simply not present.”

And, after all of this drama in 2016, why is this in the Trib in 2018?  Apparently, someone wants to relitigate the incident.  The only explanation given for the new reporting is that she was promoted “in the spring to labor liaison officer, a $97,000-per-year position responsible for helping officials during collective bargaining.”

So what do you make of this?

Should Colom have been fired in 2016?  If she had been a private-sector employee, then, yes, her boss could have fired her for any reason, or none at all, or could just as reasonably taken her aside and said, “look, it doesn’t matter what the true circumstances were; you just can’t ever say anything that anyone can misinterpret.”  But even in the private sector, employers are generally not in a hurry to fire employees just because of a single incident; they may not care about fairness and “due process” but are generally decent enough to prefer to avoid to take away an employee’s livelihood, and even if they’re indifferent, would prefer not to go through the effort of finding, onboarding, and training a new employee.  Maybe in the public sector the jobs are so desirable and performance expectations so low that this is a nonissue, and there are dozens of prospective employees who are ready to show up the next day, though I hope that’s not the case.

And once management has made the decision to enable her to keep her job — well, it simply doesn’t sit right with me that, in the opinion of the reporter, at least, or whoever, at any rate, has decided that this is newsworthy, she must wear a Scarlet Letter, be forever ineligible for any career advancement, be tolerated until she has the good sense to find another job.


Image:  from wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASwear_jar_2.jpg; By Anna Frodesiak (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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