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.

The emphasis on speeding up the process, however, rankles some local civil-rights attorneys. In a memo to the mayor last year, White claimed his staff was finding probable cause in one-fourth of cases. City figures belie this: During the last three years, the department has found merit in just five percent of cases. Between 1991 and 1995, the probable-cause rate fluctuated from 10 to 16 percent.

"The question you have to ask is, Are you getting a fair outcome or are you getting a quick outcome?" says Steven Cooper, the former head of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. Cooper acknowledges that it's a struggle for all civil-rights agencies: figuring out how to balance speed with thoroughness--nearly always on a shoestring budget. In recent years state investigators also have begun finding merit to fewer of the complaints they hear. Too often, Cooper says, caseworkers are forced to dismiss cases out of hand in order to deal with their workload.

White's deputy, Fenton Hyacinthe, reasons that the decline in probable-cause findings is partly due to the department's disposal of cases much earlier in the process. He explains that staff have been asked to first try to help parties reach an agreement before investigators spend months looking into a case. During the first quarter of this year, 20 percent of cases were mediated and settled before staffers began a full investigation.

Cooper, however, cautions that negotiating settlements won't fix the whole problem. The state used mediation when he was commissioner, he says, and in his experience, people with money and attorneys tended to fare best. That runs counter to the purpose of government anti-discrimination agencies, which were set up to help people who don't have those resources. Moreover, mediating more cases means civil-rights advocates may be compromising in cases that might otherwise set precedents that would have a broader impact on society as a whole. "Mediation has always been something that the agencies have tried," says Cooper. "But it's not a cure-all."

 

One night in the summer of 1998, Alan Hooker was at home watching TV. He was surfing through the city's public-access cable channels when an ad soliciting volunteers to serve on the Minneapolis Commission on Civil Rights caught his eye. Hooker, who is gay, didn't know anything about the city's anti-discrimination apparatus, much less the commission. But the idea intrigued him.

Hooker grew up in suburban Detroit, and he still remembers seeing National Guard tanks roll into town during the 1968 race riots. His parents brought him up to believe that community service was a duty, not a choice. These days he works for Accessible Space, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that provides housing and personal care services for people with disabilities. His job is to recruit workers and serve as the company's affirmative-action officer, making sure no one experiences discrimination. The civil-rights commission seemed like a good fit. "I've always felt that I should do something for the community, especially if it's involving race relations or GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender] relations," he says.

After interviews with a mayoral staffer and several city council members, Hooker was appointed to the commission. He'd had no training or orientation, but he figured he'd learn the ropes as he went.

It didn't take long for Hooker to become disillusioned. Most frustrating, he says, was a crippling lack of communication between the volunteers on the commission and White and his paid staff in the civil rights department. Commissioners were expected to act as judge and jury, yet they were constantly unable to get answers to very basic questions, and department administrators always seemed to be questioning their commitment. Worse, city and state officials were starting to accuse the commission of the same kind of disorganization that he felt plagued the department.

There were, for instance, thorny questions being raised about a case involving Edward A. Johnson, a Minneapolis man who claimed he'd been rejected as a blood donor back in 1989 because of his sexual orientation. The case seemed straightforward: Johnson had gone to the Plasma Alliance, a St. Paul blood bank, and was turned down after answering in the affirmative when an intake worker asked whether he'd had sex with another man since 1977. Four years later Johnson visited a different Plasma Alliance location, this one in Minneapolis, where his name popped up in the company's computer database flagged "homosexual." He had never told anyone at the donation center that he was gay, Johnson says, only that he'd had same-sex encounters. He was even more alarmed to learn that Plasma Alliance sold the information in its database to third parties.

Johnson filed a complaint in Minneapolis, and also with the state's civil rights agency. A year later the state dismissed Johnson's complaint, ruling that Plasma Alliance was acting in accordance with guidelines set down by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which apply to all potential donors, regardless of
sexual orientation.

But Minneapolis investigators reached a different conclusion. In September 1995 Minneapolis investigator Eileen Kapaun found that while Plasma Alliance could "reject donors on the basis of high-risk behaviors as a matter of public safety..., it may not reject an entire group of people based on one person's stereotyped notions of who is or is not homosexual." Kapaun concluded that Plasma Alliance had decided Johnson was homosexual and rejected him before even asking whether he had had sex with men. During the course of her investigation, Kapaun had interviewed a St. Paul Plasma Alliance staffer who told her she was able to identify gay men by "tuning into the person, paying attention to mannerisms such as their walk (if feminine), their speech (if feminine), their hand gestures (if accentuated)." In June 1999 the commission awarded Johnson more than $50,000 in damages and fees.

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