Un-Civil Rights

From The Washington City Paper, March 1993.

The law ‘n’ lobbying firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld may have civil rights leader Vernon Jordan among its partners, but it still has racial tension in its ranks. Patricia A. McNeil, a black data-processor fired from Akin Gump last April after 4 1/2 years of employment [just before her pension plan would have vested], has sued the firm, charging racial discrimination. McNeil’s suit, on file at U.S District Court [in Washington, DC] alleges that her supervisor, described as “Ms. Robertson” in the suit, engaged in “offensive conduct such as telling racial jokes, making comments to the effect that blacks are perceived as not working as hard as white employees, are shiftless, lazy, [and] incompetent….” When McNeil became pregnant with her second child in August 1991, Robertson said “she did not understand why blacks have so many babies,” according to the suit. “These were not isolated incidents,” says McNeil’s lawyer, James Kestell, “we have plenty of witnesses to the racial jokes.” (Akin Gump did not return Washington City Paper’s call to discuss the suit.)

I don’t remember how I first heard about this termination, but it must have been when Margie Utley, the Director of the D.C. Department of Human Rights, called my name and assigned me to investigate it. All I know is the termination had just happened and that at that time there was only one side to it: Her name was Patricia McNeil and she was the one who had been fired.

It was April in Washington, D.C. and there had been a lot of suspicious terminations that spring. After all, the country was in recession and employers were looking at every way to reduce labor costs — lawful or unlawful. This was yet another termination. But while most of the others were ignored by the media, this was not. There was no very good reason why the case of Pat McNeil was singled out, except the possible victim of a Title VII violation was a classic archetype: Her pension plan was on the verge of vesting, she was black, she had sought maternity leave–just the kind of person who should not end up the way she did–and for some reason the media, in its collective sense of outcry, covered her termination.

There was another reason the case aroused media interest. Pat McNeil’s supervisor was a known racist — while one of the firm’s executive partners was Vernon Jordan, stalwart civil rights advocate and confidant of Washington’s power elite.

Pat McNeil had worked at the firm for four-and-one-half years, so why?  What had happened?  What went wrong?