Will Eric Holder Make Good on His Word and Face Race?

By Julianne Hing May 13, 2009

Between 1983 and 1984, FBI agent Donald Rochon, who was 37 at the time, endured racial bullying and discrimination from his coworkers, the kind of nastiness that would make your every day at work a living hell. From NPR:

In one incident, Rochon returned to his desk to find that someone had put a picture of monkey over his son’s face in a family photograph. Another episode took place shortly after Rochon learned to scuba dive. "Their ideology [was that] blacks couldn’t swim," he says. "And they put up a photograph of me and another black person swimming in a garbage dump." The situation escalated when Rochon and some of his tormentors were transferred to Chicago. He started getting death threats. In one instance, white agents said they would cut off his genitals. Then, about a week later, a death and dismemberment insurance policy appeared on Rochon’s desk.

Rochon took his case to higher ups. The FBI wrote him off, calling the incidents harmless pranks, an example of the force’s "esprit de corps." Uh, yeah. I don’t speak French but what Rochon dealt with on a regular basis was not that. It was racial intimidation. Even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission called the incidents bias-motivated hate. As part of his earlier settlement, Rochon was promised a pension and salary, which, he says, the FBI hasn’t delivered. Now, he’s taking the FBI to court again, and naming Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department in the case.

Rochon says it isn’t about the money. He says there is a bigger issue involved — intimidation. "The FBI is kind of using me as an example to scare other employees — whether they be Title VII claimants or whistleblowers — into not making complaints," he says. "Otherwise, they are going to be haunted for the rest of their life."

I think Rochon is spot on, but I see it a little differently. I write the Rants and Raves section for ColorLines, and I’ve covered plenty of cases of workplace racial discrimination. The standard playbook for employers who get charged is to first ignore the allegations and later duck any responsibility. Last year, we reported about Charles Daniels, a former Lockheed Martin engineer, who won a settlement after enduring years of eerily similar racial harassment from his coworkers. These sorts of incidents are not occasional, incidental blips on the radar. And while it’s easy to fault a handful of "bad apple" employees, workplace racial harassment is a widespread problem. Furthermore, only when employers are up against the wall, and forced to accept their accountability, do employers (corporate behemoths and federal agencies alike) wake up. Rochon is doing the right thing, and now Holder and Obama administration have a chance to see to it that justice is delivered as well.