“No matter what I do from here on in, I will always be labeled
as the Tar Baby Lady.”
- Clara Denise West, Ph.D., Redstone Arsenal
White managers 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.
Reprisals and Insults
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 grievances.
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.
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
Verbal 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
out against discrimination, said Fogg,
also a Chief deputy U.S. Marshal. The racial atmosphere is hostile.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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 out email.”
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.
the 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
dawned on Dr. West, the nominal Information Assurance Officer, or IA:
She was the “tarbaby”.
under-utilized 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.
as if you called an Italian, ‘Mafia,’” said Dr. West. “It carries the
truth 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
is no white equivalent of Tar Baby. America reserves its subhuman slurs
for Blacks and Indians.
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.
Chandler Harris earned lots of money from the Tar Baby, the only non-animal
(yet also non-human) inhabitant of Brer Rabbit’s world.
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.
second 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.
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.
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.”
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
Hi-Tech Heart of Dixie
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.
Redstone 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.
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
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.
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
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
remains the area’s dominant influence, however. Blacks, who make up
20% of the arsenal’s 5,600 employees, are especially dependent on Army
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
complains that graduates of historically Black Alabama A&M “don’t
get the kind of recognition” at Redstone as do professionalsfrom 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.
has 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.
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.”
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 boys.
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.
incident occurred during a staff meeting. Afterwards, Blackburn fired
off an email:
the 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 upset.”
later 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 for…what?)
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
a primitive doll that can’t walk or talk, this Tar Baby gets around.
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 our skins.”
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.
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.”
collided 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.”
graduating 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.
Precision Guided Bigotry
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.
also realizes that her skills count for little in the Redstone old boy
network’s scheme of things.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 at 13.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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,
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 “again.”
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.
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
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?
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.
situation requires the attention of no less than the Commander-in-Chief.
Unlike the near-daily terror alerts, this is no false alarm.