Activists demand enforcement of St. Paul hiring laws

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“We’re going to deal with all of the departments,” said St. Paul NAACP President Nathaniel Khaliq in an interview with the Spokesman-Recorder last week. He was referring to the branch’s affirmative action audit of the City of St. Paul’s hiring practices.

“We’ve started with the fire and police departments because they probably have the most sordid history with our community,” said Khaliq.

The NAACP’s audit is a part of renewed efforts by a number of the city’s civil rights and social justice organizations to force the city’s government to enforce affirmative action and civil rights laws and regulations that are currently on the books. “The key word is enforcement,” said Katie Royce of the Community Stabilization Project, a social justice organization headquartered in St. Paul’s Selby/Dale neighborhood.

“You can have as many laws as you want,” Royce said, “but it’s what you do that makes the difference.”

The Community Stabilization Project is a part of the Equal Access Coalition. The coalition was formed by a number of community organizations to coordinate efforts around defending and extending affirmative action and civil rights law in the city. Other organizations in the coalition include the St. Paul NAACP, Jewish Community Action, National Association of Minority Contractors, and Kaposia, a disabled rights organization.

The coalition’s current focus has been on pressing city government to enforce its affirmative action laws and regulations as they relate to employment and the awarding of city contracts. “They have the tools, and they need to be used,” continued Royce. “They have been purposefully ignored.”

Scope of the problem
A cursory look at the St. Paul city government’s own figures on the employment of black people conveys the scope of the problem. According to the City’s workforce utilization reports from September of this year, the total number of City employees stood at 2,657. Of that number, 139 or five percent were black.

According to 2000 Census reports, approximately 33 percent of the city’s population are people of color, and 11.7 percent African American. Moreover, these population figures alone don’t reflect the fact that there are more working-aged people of color and women in the city, making the disparities greater in real life than they appear on paper.

While the ideological and political offensives against strong civil rights laws have tried to define affirmative action and related programs as “payback for past wrongs,” organizers in St. Paul insist that these programs are necessary as a weapon to combat discrimination occurring today.

“There is still a racial wall in place when it comes to people of color and women getting jobs, housing, education and access to credit,” said community organizer Sam Grant. “We need affirmative action extended, not reduced,” explained Grant.

Grant also discussed the impact of the economic crisis today and how in this context, when working people face growing layoffs, increased housing costs, and cutbacks in education, affirmative action takes on added importance.

“Unemployment spells are longer than they used to be — this is truer for people of color and women. Spells of underemployment are longer than they used to be — this is also truer for people of color and women,” said Grant.

Grant also noted that in addition to increasing the number of people of color and women who are hired, programs need to focus on issues of retention and promotion as key parts of the equation.

Key question: the mode of enforcement
Many of the activists and organizations involved in this renewed activity are calling for expansion of the scope and mode of civil rights and affirmative action enforcement in the city.

Affirmative action programs were won as a part of the massive struggles for Black rights during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. These programs were fought for as a way to combat racist and sexist discrimination in employment, education, housing, and distribution of government contracts in both the private and public sector.

From its very inception, however, affirmative action encountered strong opposition. While anti-affirmative action forces could not halt the implementation of many programs, they aimed their fire at weakening the capacity to enforce these laws. This was accomplished in part through the mechanism of attaching a cumbersome complaint-based method of enforcement to the civil rights law and the affirmative action system.

Under this complaint-based system, the burden of proof of discrimination lays with the victim. The remedies for violations of the law are civil, not criminal, and in most cases it is cost-prohibitive for victims to pursue the legal action necessary to achieve justice. In addition, in the majority of cases where some redress is achieved, the remedy established is for the individual complainant and not for the institution responsible for the discrimination.

Many of the organizers in St. Paul have begun to raise the issue of altering the mode of enforcement as a key question in advancing the fight to defend and extend these programs. Some of the changes these activists propose include establishing an audit-based system of enforcement as opposed to the current complaint-based system, and making acts of discrimination punishable under the criminal code.

Khaliq believes that these kinds of changes make sense. “The impact of racial discrimination in the workplace is criminal,” he said. “It is just as great as the impact of burning a cross on a person’s lawn, and that is against the law.”

In addition to these measures, many people have spoken to the necessity of establishing quotas as the only way to effectively achieve results.

Many defenders of affirmative action backed off of fighting for quotas under the pressures of the blistering ideological and legal attacks waged by anti-affirmative action forces in the 1980’s and 1990s under the banner of “reverse discrimination.” These frontal assaults were buttressed by calls from liberal politicians to “mend, not end” affirmative action programs, with “mend” standing as a code word for opposing quotas.

Grant sees this differently: “They [quotas] are a good thing to fight for. They hit right at the jugular.”

Other developments
In addition to the NAACP audit, which is still being conducted, the St. Paul City Council passed a resolution June 8 calling for an audit of the City’s Department of Planning and Economic Development and Housing and Redevelopment Authority. The audit would examine both departments’ entire operations regarding compliance with the city’s civil rights law.

The city is currently in the process of procuring a consulting firm to conduct the audit.

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