By Pamela Au /

Civil Rights Groups Pressure VA Ahead of GAO Racism Audit

GAO has agreed to investigate the prevalence racism at the Veterans Affairs Department after a survey revealed that the vast majority of bargaining unit employees had either experienced or witnessed acts of discrimination on the job.

Kansas City-area civil rights groups on Tuesday vowed to continue to pressure officials at the Veterans Affairs Department to do something about racism that they said pervades the agency responsible for providing veterans health care, as a government watchdog agency prepares to begin its own inquiry into allegations of discrimination.

In August, a survey conducted by the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents employees at the department, found that nearly 76% of respondents had either experienced or witnessed “racially charged actions” against themselves or a coworker. After the survey’s release, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct an investigation into systemic racism at the VA.

Last week, the senators announced that GAO has agreed to conduct an audit into the “culture, policies and practices” at the VA to examine the prevalence of racism and discrimination against both employees and veterans. The investigation is set to begin in about six months, officials at the watchdog agency said.

“The GAO agreeing to conduct an independent audit is a good first step towards confronting and addressing the staggering amounts of racism and discrimination reported by VA employees and veterans,” Warren said in a statement. “The VA is the second biggest agency in our entire federal government and it’s crucial that we root out systemic racism at the agency and all institutions.”

But civil rights leaders in the Kansas City region demanded that the VA work more proactively to address the problem. The Kansas City VA has been a flashpoint in the allegations against the department since current and former employees called out management for an insensitive proposal to celebrate Juneteenth by encouraging employees to depict a list of historical Black characters, including slaves, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and George Floyd, who was killed by Minneapolis police in May.

“I’m a 10-year Air Force veteran, serving in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and I heard stories 20 years ago about what was going on at the VA,” said Pastor Michael Brooks of the Concerned Clergy Coalition of Kansas City. “This didn’t happen overnight—it’s been going on for years.”

VA spokeswoman Christina Noel dismissed the GAO investigation and the concerns of employees and civil rights groups in a statement to Government Executive, and suggested agencies investigate AFGE over sexual harassment conducted by former national president J. David Cox, who resigned in February.

“The senators’ request to GAO is nothing more than a shameful attempt to besmirch the reputations of hundreds of thousands of dedicated career government employees at VA,” Noel said. “[VA] does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form. As of [fiscal] 2018, more than 40 percent of VA employees were minorities.”

But VA employees said that most of the time, VA leadership simply brushes aside allegations of racism against its white employees and fosters a culture of retaliation. As a result, many employees of color do not report discriminatory incidents for fear of retaliation.

And they fear that the recent executive order seeking to purge federal agencies of diversity training that the White House deems un-American, including unconscious bias training, will only serve to further silence Black employees.

“I already see a number of good VA employees too afraid to speak up about what’s happening to them,” said Marcellus Shields, president of AFGE Local 342, which represents VA employees in Wilmington, Del. “And now, with this new EO, it will keep them from speaking out.”

In a statement, AFGE National President Everett Kelley said systemic racism at the VA is a longstanding issue and applauded GAO for agreeing to investigate the matter.

“For far too long, VA leadership has turned a blind eye to employee claims of racism, disparaged their credibility in the media, and refused to meet with the union to discuss this serious issue,” Kelley said. “These problems have been exacerbated under the Trump administration and will only get worse with actions like President Trump’s executive order banning diversity training at federal agencies.”