What Should Happen After the Beer Summit

By Donna Hernandez Jul 30, 2009

Over the past month, race relations have heated up in US cities where government officials have been accused of posting racist messages on the Internet. There have been several investigations into the incidents. People want to know: who was it? were they on duty? While all of this is relevant, I’d like to look at this the way I hope the Obama spin doctors are weaving the story of today’s Beer Summit: a forward looking dialogue with an eye toward preventative measures. Unfortunately, the dialogue about the postings seems to focus on avoiding liability on all sides. The list of racist postings occurring at government agencies is pretty long, with one in the news today that involves a Boston Police Officer voicing his outrage over the Gates/Crowley conflict online. Here’s news of another racist email from our friends over at the Department of Homeland Security. This government agency, which occupies the front lines of this country’s international relations strategies, needs a policy that encourages cultural sensitivity when dealing with communities of color and immigrant communities. Although DHS has launched an investigation into the individuals responsible, the department should be focusing on how to prevent such biases from entering its ranks and, in turn, poisoning the delivery of the department’s services. And, if they screened an employee they should also be responsible for the employee’s actions, especially when it comes to possible misconduct while interacting with civilians. Perhaps there would be more concern on the part of government agencies as to how to rid their ranks of biased employees if they were threatened with civil rights suits claiming that a failure to prevent racist postings amounts to tolerating a hostile work environment in violation of federal civil rights laws? There is proof that possible civil liability does cause government officials to think twice when it comes to being proactive about preventing racist web postings. Some police departments have been proactive about conducting cultural sensitivity training in order to show an attempt to improve community relations. But are these efforts enough without civilian oversight ensuring that government agencies aren’t getting it wrong? As we’ve seen in the case of Sgt. Crowley, teaching about avoiding racial profiling does not make one sensitive or knowledgeable about racial justice issues. What does work? Training is a start but fair delivery of services is easier said than done for individuals who have little to no experience with communities they are not familiar with. Whether Obama succeeds at today’s BBQ is a subject for another blog, but the issue of government employees letting their race, class, gender and/or sexual orientation preferences affect their delivery of services is one that requires an open dialogue about preventative measures. Measures that include typical screenings and are supplemented by community relations training at the early stages of employment. However, government bodies at all levels should also be required to form partnerships in the communities that they serve in order to provide hands-on training to employees and to provide experience working with communities that may differ in demographic composition from those that government employees are most familiar with. Maybe with these types of coordinated efforts, agencies will be comprised of individuals less likely to take actions, such as expressing biases in web postings that could negatively affect the delivery of government services. Now, we all have one friend or another who has sent us an inappropriate email, claiming humor lessens the distasteful. Or maybe they’ve even challenged your ability to loosen up. How have you dealt with situations like this? Do you tell them it’s distasteful? Do you tell them to grow up and that it’s not a matter of loosening up but learning to break down images which offend and are blatantly racist? Or do you just ignore it and move on? No matter how we choose to handle them in our personal lives, the postings that dominate the news are unacceptable and should not be tolerated at any level of government. Further, the government and its agencies have a responsibility to screen and train employees in a manner that prevents them from using race or class biases to affect the delivery of government services. Truly unbiased delivery of services however requires substantive partnerships between government agencies and relevant institutions within the communities they serve.