Department of the Living Dead
Twenty years ago, when Don Fraser selected Mary Emma Hixson, a white lesbian, to lead the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, the howls of protest were practically instantaneous. Black leaders around town decried Hixson's lack of practical experience in working for communities of color, and claimed the mayor was turning his back on the needs of minorities.
Hixson's supporters heralded the move as a victory for gender equality and gay rights in the summer of 1984, but the scuffle was a pivotal point for the local civil rights movement. The department was forged, after all, at the urging of black leaders in the late 1960s; that the torch would be passed to a white woman was unthinkable. The Hixson matter, as Ron Edwards told the New York Times in the parlance of the day, reflected the "posture of apartheid" emanating from the mayor's office. Fraser shot back: "It's the height of irony that a racial test should be put to the head of an agency who is hired to end those attitudes."
Things may be more muted now, but are certainly no less messy. Last month, when Mayor R.T. Rybak announced his choice for the city's civil rights director, there was swift dissent. And it wasn't coming strictly from community watchdogs: The city's highest ranking black official, council member Natalie Johnson Lee, boycotted the mayor's State of the City address three days after the announcement.
Never mind that unlike Hixson, Jayne Baccus Khalifa is African American. Privately, some were saying that Khalifa, a longtime bureaucrat who left a five-year post as managing director of St. Paul's Penumbra Theatre, was not the kind of black leader they needed. Sure, she had served as a deputy director for the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department in 1973, and even headed the state's Department of Human Rights in 1986. But all that only served to prove that Khalifa is beholden to insider politics, the critics said, and has done little to advance the cause of street-level progress.
Indeed, Khalifa's résumé is peppered with stays at various government agencies, and almost nothing in the way of grassroots civil rights work. One observer termed her "R.T.'s kind of Negro," a sentiment echoed by several people I spoke to. The underlying tensions have everything to do with class. Specifically, these community leaders fear that African American professionals of Khalifa's pedigree have little understanding or concern for the plight of less well-to-do blacks in America. Typically, the thinking goes, the black bourgeoisie winds up far closer to their institutional bosses than to the people they ostensibly represent--and if they do work on civil rights issues, they tend to emphasize the struggles of their own corporate/professional class rather than more basic workaday issues.
Which may or may not be true in the particular case of Jayne Khalifa. But whatever the suspicion and ill-feeling say about how some people see this mayor and his appointee, the flap also resurrects old questions about what the proper role of the civil rights department is.
Initially, the idea of the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department was to ensure that no one working or living in Minneapolis would be subjected to discriminatory treatment, and that there would be a city entity in charge of investigating complaints. It was an outgrowth of two commissions created in 1947, during Hubert Humphrey's tenure as mayor; later, Humphrey would go on to become one of the first voices agitating for civil rights in the U.S. Congress. Even today, the city's website espouses as its goal, "to end discrimination in Minneapolis."
Over time, though, the department's purview grew and shifted--from dealing exclusively with racial discrimination to more general oversight of the rights of "protected classes," a designation that encompassed women, gays and lesbians, the disabled, the aging. There are many in local African American circles who believe the department has never fought racial discrimination seriously or consistently since its scope was rendered so broad.
Though Don Fraser's appointment of Emma Hixson was confirmed in 1984, her 10-year tenure was marked by controversy and accusations of poor management. And it wasn't lost on anyone that her defining crusade involved not race, but the rights of same-sex couples.
In 1994, then-Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton decided not to reappoint Hixson. But the department only grew more notorious. Sayles Belton's pick for the job, a black man named Kenneth White, was accused of nepotism when the Star Tribune reported in 1998 that three people with ties to White's family were working under him. Later White was charged with ignoring alleged sexual harassment in the workplace.
The more troubling fact was that unresolved discrimination complaints became commonplace. During Hixson's tenure, as many as 300 cases per year were investigated. As reported in City Pages in 2000 (see "The Complaint Department," 8/16/00), more than 90 percent of those cases were closed within a year. By 1995, only 188 of 263 investigated cases were resolved in White's first full year. By 1999, the department only looked at 75 complaints.
Eventually, city leaders began to talk of cutting civil rights programs altogether. Though that hasn't happened, budget cuts and staff "streamlining" further crippled the department. White was dismissed, and deputy director Vanne Owens Hayes was picked by Sayles Belton to lead the department in March 2001. By most accounts, matters have not improved under her stewardship. (See "Dancing as Fast as She Can," 12/12/02.)
Little more than a year ago, Owens Hayes told the City Council that the department was investigating more than 300 cases a year. But the outcome of those investigations is uncertain: A data practices request yielded no paperwork regarding cases investigated, or their outcomes, since 1990. In other words, the department apparently has no easily accessed record of complaints filed in the past 14 years.
The department, with its annual budget of $2 million, currently has at least three vacant positions in what is supposed to be a 25-person department. What's more, only three investigators are on hand to examine complaints of discrimination. In the last year, Owens Hayes has repeatedly rejected pleas from the City Council to cut high-paying administrative jobs and add more workers to handle the overwhelming caseload.
Since Rybak opted not to reappoint her in January, Owens Hayes has served as a lame- duck leader, remaining on the job and continuing to draw her $96,000 annual salary. Morale in the department is said to have plummeted. Last month, an anonymous letter from an employee there circulated locally. Over the course of six pages, it detailed an alleged history of favoritism in promotions and demotions, and of chronic ineptitude on the part of White and Owens Hayes. "Longtime, hardworking city employees are laid off or forced to quit to make room for and/or justify hiring of friends and relatives," the letter claimed. It noted that there are as many as six managerial positions in the department, roughly one for every three workers.
In the last three weeks, two other department employees (who wish to remain anonymous) contacted City Pages to corroborate much of the letter's contents. "It's oppressive," says one. "Dedicated workers fear for their jobs, and [wonder] whether the department will ever function properly again."
Marvin Taylor, a longtime city employee who has been with the civil rights department since 1997, speaks cautiously about how things have gone so far astray. "To be effective in this job, people should have a genuine concern for solving [discrimination] problems in the community," Taylor offers. "When leadership becomes self-serving, the results become evident and everyone else suffers."
Taylor says he doesn't blame city leadership directly for the long decay of the department. He insists the problems are internal, and worse than any mayor or city council member could know. "In my experience, elected officials have been supportive of protected- class issues," Taylor says. "But they lack productive input from anyone in the department. They must depend on staff to provide them with information and solutions to set policy."
Would Jayne Khalifa be the kind of director who cleans house, or the kind who rearranges deck chairs on sinking ships? While Khalifa's detractors call another finalist, Jessica Lynn Jackson, a better choice on the affirmative-action front, Jackson's résumé boasts little in the way of administrative experience. (Two other finalists were Tyrone Terrill, who heads St. Paul's human rights department, and Harry Davis Jr., who works for Hennepin County's family services division.)
But Steve Cooper, an attorney who once led the state's Department of Human Rights and now handles discrimination cases in his private practice, believes Khalifa may be what the department needs. Cooper notes that Khalifa preceded him at the Human Rights Department, where she earned a reputation as an excellent "caretaker" who could manage people. (The Human Rights Department, which investigates discrimination practices on a statewide level, was mired in controversy before Khalifa's tenure.)
While Cooper says he understands the criticisms of Khalifa, he also believes that she's capable of handling the serious overhaul the department needs. "We may need a high- profile visionary down the road," Cooper offers, "but first we have to get that house in order."
Which is exactly what Khalifa, who came to the Twin Cities in 1964 from Tulsa, Oklahoma, professes to want to do. She talks of "technical skills" and putting "strategies in place to offer better service" and notes that under her leadership "a change is going to occur." She also shrugs off the criticisms against her. "Change is always scary," she says, playing up her status as a figure from outside the department. "No matter how bad things get, people will stay with the same thing."
Of course, it should be pointed out that whether Khalifa will get to change anything is uncertain. In addition to skipping the mayor's address, Natalie Johnson Lee was a no-show last month at the mayor's Executive Committee meeting, where the Khalifa appointment would likely be sent to a council subcommittee before wending its way to the full council for a vote. Johnson Lee's absence, along with that of council vice president Robert Lilligren, ensured that there would be no quorum and effectively delayed processing of the mayor's appointment. (The duo skipped the Executive Committee again last week, though both insist their simultaneous absences were accidental this time.)
While questions about how Khalifa was selected and whether she'll do right persist, the delay of her appointment looms large. As one disgruntled civil rights employee says, "Anyone who comes in would be welcomed and should be given a chance. A number of us are just hanging on, waiting for someone to come in and clean up the department."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.