Challenge for MHP: Fix undefined discrimination, too

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 27, 2009

January 2009: Memo from Derrick Johnson, president, Mississippi NAACP, to Steve Simpson, commissioner, Mississippi Department of Public Safety: Black officers of the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol are being discriminated against based on race. Stop it.

January 2009: Memo from Simpson to Johnson: Thanks. Please tell us who has been discriminated against, where and how. We’ll fix it.

Charlie Mitchell is executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. Write to him at Box 821668, Vicksburg, MS 39182 or e-mail

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September 2009: Memo from Johnson to Simpson: Since I notified you of the discrimination, it has gotten worse.

September 2009: Memo from Simpson to Johnson: Thanks, again. Please tell us who has been discriminated against, where and how. We’ll fix it.

The memos are a fabrication. To the extent that the NAACP and the MHP have communicated this year, it has been through a lawsuit and news stories.

What Simpson did say after Johnson’s second volley was to repeat, “To this point, no one has come forward to say they were discriminated against or revealed to this agency who is doing the alleged discriminating.”

It’s not like the commissioner is turning a deaf ear. He’s facilitating a U.S. Department of Justice review of MHP personnel policies and practices. Still, Johnson, citing an expectation of retaliation, has continued to decline to name officers or specify who was or wasn’t hired, promoted, transferred or was insulted or what work schedules or assignments have been unfavorable based on race.

The case is significant — and could be more significant — because it bridges the law toward what could be a third plateau of workplace justice.

Reaching the first plateau was easy to define.

It was ending the flat refusal by MHP, all other public employers in Mississippi and most public and private employers nationwide to hire any black person as anything other than a custodian. It wasn’t that long ago — a mere 35 years or so — that all members of the state’s police force were white males, period. Even all members of the Legislature and all except five members of Congress were white.

Today, MHP’s numbers mirror the state’s 62 percent white, 36 percent black demographic. (Two percent “other.”) In color, MHP is far better balanced than most workplaces, public or private.

The second plateau has been harder and has two parts.

First was ending the often open and often hostile practice of treating black employees, well, like dirt. It was giving a minority a job that was, on its face, equivalent to a white person’s job, but making sure the black employee got the scut assignment, the worst shift and little or no chance for promotion.

That’s where the EEOC found its voice.

Congress, in passing civil rights acts, chartered the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Even today, before any individual or group can sue under most laws banning discrimination based on race, gender, national origin or religion, an EEOC review is required. The idea was to get employers’ attention. It has worked.

Part two is that discrimination became less and less open and more and more disguised, causing the EEOC the rely more and more on statistical proof. That is, the agency no longer expected a supervisor would testify, “Well, yea, we decided a white person should get that promotion.” So, when a complaint is filed, the EEOC subpoenas an employer’s personnel records. They look for trends in hiring, firing, promoting and such to see if there’s a pattern that (1) has a racial component and (2) can’t be explained by training or experience. These are not quotas.

In all cases preceding the Mississippi NAACP’s complaint about the MHP, an EEOC requirement has been to point out a specific action or inaction with a discriminatory intent or consequence that could not be explained or justified.

But the EEOC cleared the way for the NAACP to file its suit. It says the EEOC believes discrimination exists in the MHP, generally.

And it puts Simpson in the same quandary an interior designer would face in serving a client who phones in and says, “Make my house look like I want it to look” and hangs up.

In addition to being ahead of most work places, public and private, in balancing its work force by race, the MHP has had a balanced command structure. All duties, including the top job of commissioner, have been held by black Mississippians.

The NAACP, joined by the EEOC, says the organization needs to do more. Other than pay money damages, it doesn’t say and perhaps doesn’t know what more is.

Getting rid of that kind of discrimination is the third plateau.