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Thursday, February 1, 2007

FEMA's Almost All-White Leadership Plagued by Discrimination

DiversityInc Exclusive
By Yoji Cole

You read it here exclusively. Information obtained by DiversityInc reveals the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is an organization plagued by racial inequities, which makes clear the reasons for its inability to relate to and provide for people of color, especially low-income blacks.

Information obtained by DiversityInc through a federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request shows FEMA's leadership is almost entirely white and the federal agency has been subject to a disproportionate amount of discrimination claims.

Race became a salient factor in judging the effectiveness of FEMA's response after DiversityInc learned that of the organization's 19 senior staff members listed on its Web site, only one is a person of color and only five are women. The only person of color is the director of FEMA's Office of Civil Rights, Pauline C. Campbell, a black woman.

In addition, employee complaints citing race and gender bias at FEMA have increased dramatically in the past year, according to DiversityInc's findings.

Despite a Freedom of Information Act request from DiversityInc, FEMA still has not released the racial/ethnic demographics of its entire staff of approximately 2,000 employees. FEMA did tell DiversityInc that of its 10 regional directors, all are white.

Discrimination complaints are soaring at the agency. In the first three quarters of FY2005 (the federal fiscal year ends Sept. 30), FEMA had more internal complaints based on race and sex than it had in 2003 and 2004 combined and more than it had in any year since 2000. The first three quarters of FY2005 saw race-based complaints more than double, from 12 in 2004 to 31 in 2005, according to data released to DiversityInc by FEMA.

The first three quarters of 2005 also saw complaints based on gender discrimination soar, up almost 400 percent, from 11 in 2004 to 43 in 2005. That also was an increase in complaints from 15 in 2003, 16 in 2002, 20 in 2001 and 17 in 2000.

The concept of diversity is prehistoric at FEMA, when compared with the in-depth and pervasive approach of companies on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list. Take a look at FEMA's Web site, for example. The organization's diversity link, which should spotlight management programs, leadership, multicultural marketing and supplier diversity, doesn't do any of that. Instead, it only links to a year-long Calendar of Special Observance Programs, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, African-American History Month and Women's History Month. And, the organization's Equal Rights Officer Cadre mostly deals with complaints and resolution, according to FEMA's Web site.

Campbell, whose Equal Rights office should be providing and implementing diversity-management programs, such as employee-resource groups, mentoring programs and diversity training, did not return repeated calls from DiversityInc requesting an interview.

That Campbell is FEMA's only leader of color and that race, gender and sex complaints have increased indicates an organization whose leadership is ignorant of the benefit of having a staff that reflects the nation's demographics. FEMA lacks senior officials who are knowledgeable of culturally competent responses to victims and employees. Having leadership and staff of color becomes a life-and-death situation when it is FEMA, an organization providing relief through evacuation, food, money and medication.

This is of concern to black members of Congress as well, especially Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the U.S. House Committe on Homeland Security.

"I just spoke to Michael Chertoff [head of the Department of Homeland Security] about an hour ago and told him that I'd been in several meetings this weekend in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina and I had not seen one African American who works for FEMA," Thompson told DiversityInc Monday.

"I was in New Orleans, in Jackson, Miss., in Hancock County, Miss., this weekend and at every meeting there were a number of FEMA representatives but not one was African American," Thompson said.

The dearth of leaders of color becomes even more alarming when a great many of the citizens FEMA is supposed to help are people of color and poor. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of New Orleans in 2000 was 485,000, of whom 326,000 (67 percent) were black, 136,000 white, and the remaining Asian American or Latino. Median incomes in New Orleans and the other affected areas are significantly lower than the national average. Based on poverty rate, Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation. Louisiana is the second poorest. The poverty rate in New Orleans prior to the storm was 23 percent, 76 percent higher than the national average of 13.1 percent. In Louisiana, blacks comprise 31.5 percent of the population but 69 percent of the children in poverty. Besides being poor, many families also lacked vehicles to get out of New Orleans. About 9 percent or 38,000 households in New Orleans did not have a vehicle available. Combined with low incomes and high poverty rates, it now appears that a significant number of families simply were not able to marshal the resources to evacuate and are now especially dependent on national relief efforts.

Which leader at FEMA understands the special needs of the people displaced by Katrina or how to relate to the victims—to best help them leave and to best help them rebuild their lives?

Thompson said he's already heard that black victims are not receiving equitable treatment from FEMA representatives. To make FEMA aware Friday, he sent a letter to FEMA's Acting Under Secretary of Emergency Preparedness and Response, R. David Paulison.

"I cannot ignore the anecdotal reports alleging inequitable treatment by Hurricane victims in their attempts to access immediate disaster relief services," wrote Thompson. "Actual or perceived inequity may hamper the ability of these Hurricane victims to have full access to all available federal benefits."

"Perceived inequity" is a key phrase in Thompson's letter. It is almost definite that perception cost lives in the early days of the recovery when gunshots were said to have stopped rescue and evacuation efforts. The perception was one of a city spiraling out of control as gangs of angry black people gathered unchecked, looting area stores. FEMA lacked leaders of color who could speak out against such perceptions.

Many of the residents in New Orleans were single mothers, and there is no indication that FEMA leaders thought that keeping black families together was important since many have been separated in shelters in different states. The perception: "As I saw the African Americans, mostly African-American families ripped apart, I could only think about slavery, families ripped apart, herded into what looked like concentration camps," said Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., on the rescue and relocation efforts. Her thoughts were shared by many black television viewers. FEMA lacked the leaders of color who could speak out and say that separating black families echoed slave-era atrocities.

Another perception is that there is no need to provide exceptional relief for poor black citizens. The perception: "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this—this is working very well for them," said Barbara Bush to television reporters at Houston's Astrodome. FEMA lacked a leader of color who could tell the media and the public that the organization did not share Mrs. Bush's point of view.

As a result, the following perception prevails among the nation's black communities: "George Bush doesn't care about black people," said Kanye West on an NBC telethon for hurricane relief.

FEMA's leadership is sorely lacking in representation of color, people who could have contradicted the negative perceptions of not only the black residents of New Orleans marooned at the city's Superdome but of itself and the administration.

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