matter what I do from here on in, I will always be labeled as the Tar
- Clara Denise
West, Ph.D., Redstone Arsenal
at one of the nation’s most sensitive military installations routinely
assault Black employees with an archaic racial epithet, undermining
even the pretense of unified national resolve in the “War on Terror.”
At Huntsville, Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal, a military and civilian culture
holds sway that seems to revel in the language of unrelenting war against
the humanity and dignity of African Americans.
What do they call
a Black Ph.D. at Redstone? Tar Baby.
installation is the heart of the U.S. Army’s precision guided munitions
systems, home to the Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM), Space and
Missile Defense Command (SMDC), Army Corps of Engineers, Program Executive
Offices (PEO) and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
The place might
as well be decorated with lawn jockeys. A female African American specializing
in the purchase of Patriot missiles described the “good old boy system”
that prevails at Redstone as “a direct threat to our national security.”
Since the events
of September 11, a National Guard unit comprised of locals from surrounding
north Alabama towns has secured the perimeter of the base, alert to
the threat from alien enemies. The more serious danger to military
readiness, however, lies within. African American employees, among
them weapons experts at the highest levels of training and security
clearance, feel besieged by a systemic racism that also damages Redstone’s
high tech military mission.
Two years ago,
African Americans and non-Black whistle blowers banded together under
the leadership of RAM, the Redstone Area Minority Employees Association.
Joined by the NAACP, RAM has called for a congressional investigation
into racial practices at the installation, including discrimination
in promotions and assignments, unjust firings, illegal retaliation against
whistleblowers, and rampant blacklisting of employees who dare to file
The military brass
and civilian managers have conceded virtually nothing. Instead, Blacks
find themselves confronted with the sudden resurrection of a term most
had not heard since childhood.
RAM’s May 20 press
release detailed three separate incidents in which military and civilian
managers invoked the Uncle Remus character, a silent, sticky Black female
made of tar.
20, 2002 News Release:
EPITHET FUELS RACIAL TENSIONS AT REDSTONE
outrage part of pattern of racism and corruption, minorities charge
is the rocket capital of the world, the home of Americas’ weapons
of the future,” said RAM Executive Director Matthew Fogg. “But minority
employees still have to struggle with obscene prejudices and insults
that should have been left in the past after we defeated Jim Crow.”
African Americans at Redstone “are afraid of reprisals if they speak
discrimination, said Fogg, also a Chief deputy U.S. Marshal.
The racial atmosphere is hostile.
Fogg said he
is in possession of an April 16 2002 email, written by a US Army GS-14
manager, that openly describes an African American woman Information
Assurance (IA) officer as a “Tar-baby”. The target
of the epithet holds a Ph.D. in Systems Engineering.
The scientist in
question is Dr. Clara Denise West, a single mother of two who has earned
four degrees, including the doctorate. “It’s been hard and it’s embarrassing,”
she told BC, “because no matter what I do from here on in, I will always
be labeled as the Tar Baby Lady.”
maddening fact is, had Dr. West sat silently—like the gooey pitch doll
popularized in Joel
Chandler Harris Brer Rabbit series, back in 1878 —the label might
not have traveled beyond her office. Muteness was a theoretical option.
Indeed, management seemed surprised when she refused to accept having
insult piled upon injury.
Dr. West is certain
she was already on a “blacklist” when the offending email arrived in
her Aviation and Missile Command computer, this spring. She’s been
on the wrong side of the good old boys at Redstone since 1998, when
she charged the brass with unfairly denying her a promotion. At the
time, West was the only Black female engineering Ph.D. at the installation.
A hearing ruled
in Dr. West’s favor, but the agency’s appeal is still pending, leaving
her “sitting at a desk all day long with no job to do, sending out emails,”
she said. “I didn’t need any more than a high school diploma to send
As a result of
the years of enforced idleness, there has been little to report in Dr.
West’s performance appraisals, the documents that are the basis for
future promotion. “Yeah, she’s blacklisted, her career is over,” West
heard one of her white colleagues remark shortly after her grievance
was filed. He seemed pleased, she recalls.
proverbial banality of evil, the April email from West’s supervisor
started off as a routine inter-office communication. However, the final
sentence of the message, written to a fellow supervisor and copied to
Dr. West, reads like a weird hybrid of modern office-speak and Dixie
would like to get out of the loop once you get update from Ms West.
Now that you are back from TDY, I would really like to hand the IA
It suddenly dawned
on Dr. West, the nominal Information Assurance Officer, or IA: She
was the “tarbaby”.
engineer is also President of RAM. It didn’t take her long to discover
that Tar Baby had recently been rescued from linguistic extinction at
other Redstone offices. The good old boys had re-minted an old slur.
“It’s as if you
called an Italian, ‘Mafia,’” said Dr. West. “It carries the same connotation.”
is a lot harsher than that, maybe too painful for some victims to fully
internalize. Tar Baby is definitely not the equivalent of Mafia.
Mafiosi are men—often powerful, decisive men. Some are very rich men.
Whatever their vices, they are viewed by other men as human beings.
There is no white
equivalent of Tar Baby. America reserves its subhuman slurs for Blacks
Tar Babies are
racist inventions, conjured up for the purpose of dehumanizing African
Africans. It matters not one bit that Uncle Remus tales have roots
in African folklore. Slavery reduced Africans to chattel, conveniences
available to serve white people’s purposes. Over the centuries, white
Americans have made full use of these privileges.
Harris earned lots of money from the Tar Baby, the only non-animal (yet
also non-human) inhabitant of Brer Rabbit’s world. At some point during
the last two years, in the course of conversations that non-whites can
only imagine, a number of Redstone managers decided that the Brer Rabbit
tale fit their office situations, precisely. Tar Baby was reborn.
definition of Tar Baby is, “something from which it is nearly impossible
to extricate oneself.” At Redstone Arsenal, a Tar Baby is a Black person
you can’t get rid of.
Dr. West remains
at her post, although the good old boys have rendered her decades of
training and study all but useless to the War on Terror.
“I was working
on a document for the Army on cybernetic warfare,” West recalls. “The
whole field of terrorism has opened up a lot of avenues and opportunities
for people to bring in different ideas on how to address the problem.
But if you are not allowed to contribute, even if you have something
to contribute, it’s not going to happen. And this is by design.”
The U.S. Army sacrifices
national security assets—like Dr. West—in favor of petty, local, racist
employment arrangements. It seems that nothing is more precious than
a white man’s position at the top. This is the “civilization” we are
called upon to defend against foreign “evil-doers.” All the while,
domestic racists busily undermine the national defense apparatus.
Heart of Dixie
Huntsville is the
seat of Madison County, nestled on the Tennessee River among rolling
hills and picturesque lakes, just below the Tennessee border. Most
whites and many Blacks like to think of northern Alabama as a world
apart from the Black Belt to the south, although the Southern Poverty
Law Center has identified numerous white supremacist groups with headquarters
and post office boxes in surrounding towns. Scottsboro, site of the
infamous 1930s rape trials, is 35 miles away. Cullman,
where the National Guard unit assigned to Huntsville is located, has
a history of Klan activity.
arrived, Huntsville was a mill town distinguished only by its segregated
Black college, Alabama A&M. The U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service
built a plant at the edge of town during World War Two, followed by
an artillery shell facility. In 1950, a white school that would become
a campus of the University of Alabama set up shop.
Fueled by the Cold
War, the arsenal grew into a crown jewel of the military industrial
complex. Today, there is no site more crucial to U.S. development of
smart weaponry, the bombs and missiles on which soldiers scrawl the
names Saddam and Osama.
Two thirds of Huntsville’s
160,000 residents are white, about 30% Black, with small numbers of
Hispanics and Asians. The U.S. Army runs the arsenal, but civilian
managers form a kind of parallel command structure. By most African
American accounts, the good old boy network reigns, indivisible, in
and out of uniform.
Rev. John Clay
used to work at the arsenal, beginning back in the late Sixties. As
President of the Greater Huntsville Interdenominational Ministerial
Alliance, Rev. Clay speaks circumspectly. At times he sounds like a
city booster; in the next breath, he’s a critic of the racial status
Life for Blacks
in Huntsville “may be better than in most” southern cities, said the
Reverend—definitely “not as bad as it used to be.” Chrysler and GM
have plants in the county, and Toyota’s facility will soon begin production.
the area’s dominant influence, however. Blacks, who make up 20% of
the arsenal’s 5,600 employees, are especially dependent on Army paychecks.
Rev. Clay wistfully
remembers the early Seventies. “There was an EEO agenda [at Redstone]
that was enforced, then,” he said. Nowadays, “discrimination is harder
to prove.” The minister dates the backsliding to the Reagan period.
that graduates of historically Black Alabama A&M “don’t get the
kind of recognition” at Redstone as do professionals from the city’s
mostly white state university. But, because of the arsenal, he says,
many African Americans can afford spacious homes in the town and its
suburbs. “There are no slums in Huntsville,” Rev. Clay declares, emphatically.
been described as one of the most segregated cities in the South,” says
Alice Sams, president of the Huntsville – Madison County NAACP. She
confirms that Old South housing conditions have disappeared from the
city, but charges that white newcomers are routinely steered away from
the northwest, Black side of town. “Race relations are not very good,”
she maintains, especially at Redstone.
Sams is a person
of influence both on and off government property. An employee of the
Marshall Space Flight Center, she was recently elected president of
the American Federation of Government Employees local. “Diversity is
not important to the government,” she said. “There’s a culture there
that African Americans just don’t matter. We’re not even considered,
in terms of bringing us into the fold.”
Does racial discrimination
have any impact on military readiness? “Any time they can get us off
of a critical mission, they’ll do it,” said the union leader and civil
rights activist. “It’s a systemic problem.” Blacks with sensitive
skills and intensive training are particular targets of the good old
Sams’ sister, Ruby
Blackburn, fits that bill. With 25 years in government service and
a masters degree in systems engineering, Ms. Blackburn works for Program
Executive Office for Tactical Missiles. She does not have a history
of filing grievances. Her close encounter with the Tar Baby came in
May, a month after Dr. West’s humiliation. She, too, had not
heard the epithet uttered since childhood. Unlike West, Blackburn’s
tormentor was military, a colonel.
The incident occurred
during a staff meeting. Afterwards, Blackburn fired off an email:
meeting on Friday morning, you made the comment, "I don't want
the tar baby pinned on me." I was the only African American
in the room at the time of your comment. I feel it was
inappropriate, disrespectful, demeaning, offensive and a racial slur.
The remark caused me emotional turmoil and was very upsetting.
This remark highlights the need for sensitivity training of all managers
on cultural and racial awareness.
“It shocked me
that that it came out of his mouth,” said Ms. Blackburn, referring to
Colonel Craig Naudain. “When he said it, I had my head down, reading.
I’m surprised I didn’t drop something. This is 2002. I was extremely
brought an NAACP representative (not her sister) to a meeting with the
colonel, who was accompanied by two Black females. Blackburn says she
still can’t figure out why the two non-witnesses were there. (To vouch
The veteran engineer
soon learned of another, documented Tar Baby incident. “There turned
out to have been three incidents in three different offices. It’s not
an isolated case,” she said. Further investigation turned up a fourth,
unreported case, in which the Black woman involved “did nothing.”
For a primitive
doll that can’t walk or talk, this Tar Baby gets around.
What about Redstone’s
military mission? “I don’t feel that they take advantage of our knowledge,”
said Blackburn. She thinks that Tar Baby has become the slur of choice
at the arsenal “because that’s the way they look at us. They don’t
want us to say anything. They just think they are stuck with us. There’s
a lot of expertise that’s not being utilized because of the color of
Al Roach met the
Tar Baby last year, at a meeting of Redstone engineers and contractors.
A Black woman was also present when Roach’s now retired supervisor dropped
the verbal bomb. “That’s the first time I ever heard it used as a racial
slur,” said Roach. Later, the civilian boss admitted that the term
is part of his vocabulary. He insisted that, at the time, he didn’t
think he’d said anything wrong. It was all quite routine.
“That’s why they
do things that discriminate,” said systems engineer Roach, matter-of-factly.
“It’s a good old boy and blacklist environment. It’s a way of life.”
with white privilege three and a half years ago, when he formally complained
of being downgraded. He described a familiar pattern of complaint followed
by reprisal. “I’m a prime example of the blackball list,” he said.
“But I like what I’m doing. I’m not going to let anybody run me away.”
from Alabama A&M, Roach earned his masters at the University of
Minnesota. He’s worked for Honeywell, Xerox and other private corporations,
but was drawn to Redstone partly by the lure of DARPA, the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency. Through DARPA, says Roach, “the military
spends millions to encourage inventions to improve weapons systems,
but Blacks are locked out of participation.”
U.S. Army doesn’t want to hear about Roach’s potential innovations,
despite his eagerness to participate in the War on Terror.
“My expertise is
in buying weapons systems like the Patriot missile system,” Carolyn
Lucas announces proudly. She is fully aware of the value of her experience.
With a masters degree in contracts and acquisition management, certification
in three career fields—contracting, program management and financial
management—and 31 years on the job, Lucas understands the value of many
things. The cost of training her to become a senior team leader amounts
to at least $150,000 in taxpayer money, she estimates.
She also realizes
that her skills count for little in the Redstone old boy network’s scheme
Lucas, chief operations
officer for RAM, has been a GS-13 since 1991. Her troubles with management
began, she says, around 1996. “I got blacklisted for speaking out for
other people,” she laughs. “I have always been vocal. I’m a
minister, so I’m concerned about people.”
Passed over three
times for promotion to GS-14, Rev. Lucas finally filed the first of
her seven complaints in 1999, against the Space and Missile Defense
Command. The other six grievances, including four against the Program
Executive Office for Tactical Missiles, involve blacklisting and other
retaliation for the initial complaint. “Any time you speak up,” she
says, “the word gets around and you become forbidden fruit.”
A white woman with
only 15 months as a GS-13 won the promotion, and the agency prevailed
at an equal opportunity hearing. Lucas say the EEO judge later described
the Army’s promotions process as “a sham.”
As one might expect
from a money management expert, she is careful to explain her situation
in terms of the investment squandered by the military. Lucas was among
25 people chosen from across the entire Army to be “trained and groomed
to assume senior executive positions.” Many of her classmates are now
GS-15s and virtually all made GS-14, she says. Lucas is still stuck
Once her complaints
began, “They shoved me into a corner with nothing to do. For a whole
year my supervisor gave me not one work assignment.” There was no performance
to evaluate, of course, just as in the case of Dr. West.
According to Lucas,
the Army has tried to negotiate a settlement with her. She told them:
“You can’t settle with me, because this affects all minorities, it’s
not just about me. This is systemic. They have no standards”
when it comes to promoting Blacks. “This area reeks of racism. They
basically do whatever they want to do. Now,
I dont care if I ever get a GS-14.
Lucas says a white female GS-15 “who doesn’t have a day of college”
is managing a tactical missiles budget that Lucas estimates at $500
million to $1 billion.
Lucas has given
lots of thought to the effects of racism on military readiness. “I
think the impact is monumental. The old boy system is a direct threat
to our national security.
“They use our government
tax money to protect managers who are blatant racists. Incompetence
is being inbred in the system. They get people who will let the contractor
get away with anything. You’ve got people in here who don’t even know
how to compute percentages.”
Because of incompetence,
says Lucas, “it’s inevitable, some people are going to get hurt. Most
people in the infantry are Black. If a weapon doesn’t work…”
Nobody has confronted
the minister with the term Tar Baby—yet. But, it wouldn’t surprise
her. “That’s all part of the subconscious subculture that prevails
in this area. They think of Black people as troublesome, bothersome,
Patriotism and Race
When the dust had
settled over lower Manhattan, happy-talk newsreaders and wishful thinkers
of all kinds spoke of a rekindling of national feeling in the wake of
tragedy. The World Trade Center disaster might bind Americans together
The basic flaw
in such thinking should have been obvious. White racism is the great
divider of American society. The racists must change their behavior.
We have seen little evidence of that; at Redstone Arsenal, quite the
opposite is true. Indeed, appeals to patriotism seem to arouse racial
passions among the good old boys, causing them to regress to their grandfathers’
patterns of language and behavior.
It is as if Race
and Nation are the same things to these men, just as the two notions
were inextricably linked in the minds of white Americans long dead.
Tar Baby was also
thought to be dead and all but forgotten. Is it coincidental that the
grotesque racial caricature has been given new life precisely at this
time of war fever?
When George W.
Bush blew his bugle, dividing the world into “us” and “them,” Redstone
managers decided that African Americans were not part of “us.” They
are acting out this logic, engaging in the wholesale destruction of
careers and undermining national defense in the process.
The situation requires
the attention of no less than the Commander-in-Chief. Unlike the near-daily
terror alerts, this is no false alarm.