WASHINGTON – NAACP officials and black federal workers, calling the Interior Department racist and “the whitest of all federal agencies,” Tuesday demanded Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s resignation.
“Mr. Babbitt has done about as much as three dead flies” to eliminate racial discrimination at the 60,000-employee department, said Leroy Williams, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Board of Directors. “Bruce Babbitt is the man responsible.”
Williams and Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Prince George’s, joined about 65 federal workers in a noon-time protest in front of the Interior Department’s headquarters.
Wynn stopped short of calling for Babbitt’s immediate resignation, but said President Clinton needs to give the secretary an ultimatum to improve race relations at the department.
“President Clinton has to say to him `this is important and we have to correct this problem’,” Wynn said after the rally. He said Babbitt should be fired if tangible improvements are not made within six months.
No high-ranking Interior Department officials attended the rally, but Babbitt spokeswoman Mary Helen Thompson said later the secretary has “no intention” of resigning.
She said even as the protest was going on, senior agency managers were meeting in Atlanta to “specifically address issues of diversity and climate.”
She also released a memo sent by Babbitt to all Interior Department employees in February calling for “zero tolerance of discrimination.”
Black employees make up less than 6 percent of the Interior Department work force, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The National Association for the Advancement of Black Federal Employees said the department has the lowest percentage of black workers of any of the 42 largest federal agencies.
The protesters also charged that blacks do not move into higher paying jobs. Only 13 of the department’s 196 senior executives are black, according to EEOC records.
Placard-toting protesters wore orange ribbons, sang “We Shall Overcome” and chanted slogans like “Bruce Babbitt – You Must Go.”
Interior Department employee Rebecca Mach carried a sign that read: “No promotion in 24 years, Can’t afford to retire.”
Mach said she has worked at the department since her son was born in 1973, but has never been promoted and has faced harassment.
“The Interior Department is the whitest of all federal agencies,” Williams told the crowd. He later compared the Interior Department to a southern plantation.
Wynn told the workers he was “committed to trying to make and example out of Interior.” Wynn said Babbitt has made little progress on race issues in the last three years.
Lawrence Lucas, director of a coalition of minority employees at the Agriculture Department, asked the crowd: “How can the president talk about civil rights around the nation without cleaning up his own backyard?”
One protester called attention to a cartoon in an Interior Department training publication that featured a white resource manager talking to a group of ducks while ignoring a nearby black family. The family’s child says “Lookit! Dat man is talking to the ducks!”
“Tell me why a refuge manager would rather talk to ducks than a black family,” said Kim Lambert, an Interior Department biologist. She also charged that the child’s quote was a jibe at blacks.
Megan Durham, the Fish and Wildlife communications director responsible for the publication, said the cartoon was a mistake.
Durham said the cartoon originally did not show the family as being black. However, it and several others were “screened” to give some of the characters color so that more minorities would be represented in the training booklet.
“When we received the printed copies, we immediately realized that this particular illustration with the added tone might be misinterpreted and pulled all of the copies of the document that had been distributed,” Durham said in a memo Monday to Fish and Wildlife employees.
“We were trying to do the right thing,” Durham said in an interview. “Obviously we didn’t try hard enough.”