Submitted to The Boston Globe on 07/21/09:
The arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates at his home in Cambridge last week occurred at a moment when Cambridge was bogged down in a lawsuit entailing charges that racial discrimination exists at every level of its city government.
The lawsuit, known as the Monteiro case, likewise involved the Cambridge police, but its tentacles reach much further, into every department of the city and ultimately into the office of powerful City Manager Robert Healy. In her suit, Malvina Monteiro, a Cape Verdean immigrant hired in 1990 as Executive Secretary of the Police Review and Advisory Board, charged Healy with racial discrimination when he fired her in 2003, allegedly because she had, five years before, attended a course on city time without his permission. The case was brought by Monteiro and four other women of color, hired during the 1990’s to fill professional and management positions, who found that they faced retaliation whenever they took action against the city’s everyday discriminatory practices. Later the case was severed, two of the women moved away, and charges by the other two still lie ahead.
In 2005, a Middlesex Superior Court jury dropped charges of discrimination but let stand the charge that Healy had retaliated against Monteiro after she filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. And in May of this year, Superior Court Judge Bonnie Macleod-Mancuso upheld the lower court’s $4.5 million dollar award to Monteiro and criticized Healy for “incoherent testimony” and “reprehensible” behavior. Overall, the case to date has cost the city an estimated 6.7 million dollars and is likely to cost millions more in legal fees and interest charges before the appeals process has run its course.
With elephantine costs and two comparable cases in the wings, it would appear to make sense for the city to try to negotiate its way out. But the City Council has no power to initiate such a process, its only power being to hire or fire the City Manager. And by all accounts Manager Healy is deeply dug in. He is convinced that the charges against him are outrageous and that he will be vindicated on appeal (the city filed an appeal on June 17). City Councilors, running for re- election in the fall, thus face a choice between going along with the Manager and facing costs of an appeal that could go on for years, or firing him and making the outsized payments stipulated in his contract.
In the view of most observers, the city’s prospects in court do not look good. Sworn depositions and testimony in the case so far paint a devastating picture of a City Hall in which poorly qualified whites are consistently favored over better performing blacks, a policy that emanates from the City Manager and is carried out by his deputies in nearly every department. Speaking in January, 2000, in words that evidently remain true today, three-time Mayor Kenneth Reeves commented that, “Bob has a suite of offices that is closed off from the rest of the building, and he and [Assistant City Manager] Richard Rossi … and one or two other favored people are the bunker. All of the other department heads are outside, and then all the other employees are outside [of that]. There is a groupthink in that city, and there’s no person of color in it.” Noting that the manager is responsible because he is “the only person who hires anybody,” Reeves added that Healy “refuses to use search firms. There are some very good search firms that are very good at producing a diverse pool of candidates. He consistently has refused to use them.“
Reeves’ observations are echoed, although not quite so colorfully, by another former Mayor, Alice Wolf, who lamented the city’s failure to hire minority members and treat them properly. And William Gomes, the city’s former Affirmative Action Officer, testified that “the Manager, and his assistants, would sometimes get hostile to me for having raised such concerns, with the City Manager often raising his voice or pointing his finger at me for bringing such issues up and questioning their hiring. In my years of experience the city, as an employer, has resisted treating people of color equally.”
These comments, and scores of others, bring us back to the unhappy experience of Henry Louis Gates on his arrival home from China. Malvina Monteiro was hired by Healy in 1990 as Executive Director of the Cambridge Police Review and Advisory Board because, at the time, he was under extraordinary political pressure to hire minorities. His reluctance to hire a black woman in a supervisory role can only have been the greater because the Cambridge police are known to hold a special place in his heart. Sure enough, during her thirteen years at the department and as the pressure on Healy eased, Monteiro found her assignments cut back and her status diminished. For historical reasons, and because of Healy’s affection, the police department is therefore the “whitest” of any in Cambridge, with the “bunker mentality” ascendant.
That was the mentality that confronted Gates and his helper last week. What the arresting officers saw was two black men trying to break into somebody’s house in the full, improbable, light of day. Another decade, another city, and possibly they would have seen a small, graying man in spectacles who looked frightened.