Sound Transit probe is dispiriting reminder of workplace discrimination
Keeping bias in check is an unending chore, writes columnist Jerry Large.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Whenever I see a story like the one Tuesday about bias in contracting, I think, we really ought to be past this by now. But I know better.
Bias hasn't gone away, and we have to continue working to reduce it, or at least to keep it in check. Americans have been chipping away at bias for all of our country's history.
But all of the progress we've made sometimes leads to complacency or even a backlash that says: "Enough already."
I understand that feeling. Fighting bias is like housework. It's never finished. Even in the neatest house, dust accumulates, and the longer you let it go, the harder it will be to deal with when you do get to it.
Sound Transit investigated complaints that one contractor has been discriminating against women and black workers on the University of Washington-to-Capitol Hill light-rail tunnel.
The contractor, Traylor/Frontier-Kemper (TFK), said it wasn't so. I wouldn't go so far as to defend every complaining worker, but no one should discount the role that bias still plays in our lives.
The reason there is an investigation process in place is that we have a long history of discrimination against women, black people and other groups, too.
Today, when it happens, it is harder to tease out and more often a consequence of unconscious bias rather than an act of blatant bigotry.
Once, a lot of that discrimination was written into our laws and talked about as if it were just as natural and right as drinking a glass of water.
It took generations of struggle to change those laws. But even then, practices and customs kept discrimination in place. It took active steps to move society out of its ruts: affirmative action, Title IX and so on.
Except the stuff in the back of people's minds hangs on. And it is much harder to address than laws and policies in black and white.
There are allegations that TFK kept women out of some jobs. A summary of the Sound Transit report said, "TFK's management explained it did not assign women to work in the tunnel because the tunnel was not the 'right environment' for women."
This week Sally Ride died. She was the first American woman to ride a rocket into space. Before her, NASA's position was that space was no place for a woman. Her first flight was hailed as a sign of change, and it was. But it wasn't the end of the road.
On the transit project, the electrical-workers union at one point refused to send electricians to the TFK work site because of concerns about gender discrimination and harassment.
Witnesses told Sound Transit investigators that TFK gave black workers harsher punishment than white workers and that managers referred to black workers with stereotypical comments.
A statistician found significant differences in hiring and firing by race, differences that contrasted with the numbers from another Sound Transit work site.
Sound Transit general counsel Desmond Brown told me that a report being presented to the board Thursday includes a framework for preventing future problems.
"One of the lessons from this is that we really do have to have an early warning system in place to get on top of these issues so they can be dealt with immediately," he said. "And that is what we are doing now. The contractors need to have appropriate processes in place to fairly deal with workers."
TFK has said it only wanted to use qualified workers.
Who can argue with that? But history and psychology both tell us we are fallible when making those judgments.
The same day I read about the report, I also read a New York Times story about black soldiers who helped build the Alaska Canada Military Highway.
The work began in 1942. The Army was segregated and assigned black soldiers to the work only because it didn't have enough white soldiers.
The black men were given the worst equipment, but they got the job done. It was a surprise to some, because, you know, they weren't qualified.
One of the white officers said he was heartsick when he was assigned to command black soldiers, but the work they did quieted his concern and got the Army's attention.
The Army chose two black and two white soldiers to hold the ribbon when the road was opened.
That should have been the end of claims that black folk can't do construction work, but it wasn't.
It is tiresome to have to keep dusting, but necessary.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday.
Reach him at 206-464-3346
On Twitter @jerrylarge.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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