Garbage worker charges racial bias

White man claims black boss demoted, harassed him

Tuesday, April 25, 2000

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Brian Kemp was a standout among city garbage collectors, so much so that he rose to acting foreman in Pittsburgh's Bureau of Environmental Services.

His only problem on the job was overzealousness -- he was occasionally cautioned about making collections without a helper, in violation of bureau and union safety rules.

That's why his boss, LaMar Barnes, said he was surprised when Kemp filed a complaint in June 1997 alleging that he had been harassed for two years by another supervisor because of his race.

Kemp is white. His former supervisor, Ted Patterson, is black.

In a civil rights lawsuit that went to trial yesterday in U.S. District Court, Kemp claims Patterson routinely referred to him with an obscene, racist phrase, threatened him with violence, pushed him, antagonized him with a poster of Louis Farrakhan that hung in a common office and created a "racially hostile work environment" for whites.

He also says Barnes, assistant director of the Department of Public Works, unfairly demoted him after learning of his initial complaint against Patterson. The demotion from acting foreman to refuse collector cost him $5.75 an hour.

Kemp, 38, of the Mount Oliver section of the city, is still technically employed by the city but isn't working because he says he is suffering from depression brought on by racial hostility and the demotion.

The city denies Patterson or any other black supervisor harassed Kemp and says he was suffering from depression before he was demoted.

Barnes said he would have tried to help Kemp with any personal problems had he been told about them.

"I talked to him on a daily basis," Barnes testified yesterday. "He never said anything about any alleged harassment."

Kemp and his attorney, Sam Cordes, say the harassment began in early 1997, after Kemp had been promoted to acting foreman in 1996. As a foreman, Kemp shared an office with other managers at bureau headquarters on Railroad Street in the Strip District, bringing him into daily contact with Patterson.

In addition to the alleged name-calling and threats, central to the case is Kemp's claim that a poster of Farrakhan on the wall created an atmosphere of racial tension in a department where about 60 percent of the employees are black.

In pretrial motions, the city argued that the poster was irrelevant because it didn't prove a "pervasive and regular practice of posting racially offensive items." City attorneys asked that testimony about it be excluded. Cordes argued that a poster of a black leader who has made racist statements against whites should be admissible in light of the other racial elements of the case.

Chief U.S. District Judge Donald Ziegler ruled the testimony was admissible.

In addition to trying to convince the jury that Kemp was subjected to a racist workplace, Cordes will try to prove that the city punished him for filing the complaint.

Kemp says he reported the harassment to his immediate supervisor several times, but the problems were never acknowledged, so in June 1997 he filed a complaint with the city's Human Relations Commission.

The following month he was demoted, and two days later filed a second complaint with the commission claiming retaliation.

At a tape-recorded meeting on July 11, 1997, Barnes told Kemp he was demoted because "if you file a suit against another management member, another management team, you shouldn't be on that team."

Barnes said in court that he removed Kemp as acting foreman to avoid any possible physical confrontation between Patterson and Kemp, since they shared an office. He also said in court and on tape that Kemp, whom he described as an excellent worker, should have come to him instead of filing suit.

"Why can't you talk to me about this?" Barnes asked at the 1997 meeting.

"I'm going to take this all the way," Kemp said.