The Complaint Department

Fifty years ago Minneapolis launched a program to stamp out discrimination. Now many of the dream's supporters doubt the city's civil-rights agencies are equal to the task.

Last month Kenneth White made headlines when undercover narcotics officers pulled him over as he was driving home from a south Minneapolis park with his granddaughter. After asking White to step out of his 1998 BMW 740 sedan, the officers peppered him with questions. Why had he left the park abruptly? they wanted to know. And, they asked him over and over, who owned the car he was driving? White identified himself. He was the executive director of the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, he told the officers, and he had the business cards to prove it. Eventually White was sent on his way, with no apologies.

The incident made the front page of the Star Tribune two days later. A deeper irony, however, went entirely unexplored in the news coverage. The incident occurred at a time when White's department, and its adjunct agency, the 21-member Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights, are under siege. The programs, an outgrowth of a city initiative launched in 1947 by Hubert H. Humphrey Jr., were designed to ensure that no one who works or lives in Minneapolis has to confront discrimination. If individuals believed they had been denied housing because of a disability or treated unfairly at work because of their race, the city could investigate.

The program was never intended to solve everything: The most flagrant discrimination charges end up in courtrooms. Others find their way into the large-scale government bureaucracies that have been created to handle them, such as the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and its state counterparts. The agency was supposed to deal with the people whose cases fell through the cracks.

Mark Berens

In the last two years, all of the investigators who probe cases for the department have left and been replaced. Several members of the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights have also quit, complaining that White's staff won't give them many basic facts they need to do their jobs. Judges have taken the apparatus to task, charging that some commission actions "add up to a disregard of basic principles of due process, objectivity and fairness." City council member Lisa McDonald has also been asking for information about the programs, saying she wants to take a hard look at the department's $1.9 million budget. And for the first time, some of the Minneapolis residents who have donated their time to the cause are publicly questioning whether the effort is worthwhile.


Robert Bailey would seem to be the kind of person the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights was designed to help. Bailey lodged a complaint with the department in 1995, after having been fired the previous year from his job at the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP). Though Bailey's bosses told him his termination was due to poor work performance during his ten months on the job, he alleged that NRP executive director Bob Miller and another supervisor had mistreated him because he is black. (Miller declines to comment for this story.)

It took the department more than four years to render a decision on Bailey's complaint. Bailey declined to comment for this story, but a court file that was later opened in connection with his case contains numerous letters to White asking for updates. In April 1997, two years after his case was opened, Bailey inquired about the status of the matter and was told that the staff member overseeing it had been "reassigned," according to the correspondence. That fall, in frustration, he wrote a letter to Kenneth White. "I came to the office to review my file and discovered numerous documents missing," Bailey wrote. "I have repeatedly inquired as to if anyone has located these missing documents; to date I have not been given a definitive answer. How can my case be properly adjudicated/investigated if my documents are missing?"

Later letters show that Bailey's case had been sent to the City Attorney's Office in May 1997. All cases in which investigators believe discrimination was involved--or, in civil rights parlance, where "probable cause" is found--are sent to the city's legal staff for review. Shortly after that, Bailey wrote, he got a call from a "mystery lady" who refused to identify herself but seemed familiar with the details of his complaint. She told him the department was "stonewalling" and that the city was in a quandary: The city attorneys, who drafted the NRP's initial defense against Bailey's claims, were now reviewing the civil rights department's findings, the letter continued. Because the file had made it to the attorneys' offices, presumably at least one of those findings was not in the NRP's favor.

Two years went by, with no explanation for what the lawyers might have been doing with his file, and no action. In a July 1999 letter to White, Bailey complained that he'd provided investigators with the names of numerous witnesses, but none of them had been contacted. "I have spoken to many people who were able to provide information to substantiate my claim against NRP and they have not been interviewed," he fumed. "I am very concerned that my case has been placed on the back burner and has not been thoroughly investigated."

Weeks later, the department finally issued its decision: Bailey was the victim of retaliation, but there was no evidence that racial discrimination was involved.

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