Racism charges hit Texas park agency

AUSTIN (AP) — Racism and discrimination allegations are troubling the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which has spent $100,000 on reports that have so far found employees lamenting “a legacy of intolerance” and is now faced with a second federal complaint from a black game warden-in-training.

Only 1 percent of game wardens in the 50-year history of Texas’ parks agency have been black. State officials acknowledge enduring failures with recruiting minorities, but a lawsuit and concern from black Texas lawmakers has quietly escalated the issue in recent months from elusive diversity to accusations of racial bias.

Brukendra Jackson, 26, alleges she was mistreated earlier this year as one of only two black cadets in a complaint filed Wednesday with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That federal agency also granted a white game warden, John Rao Jr., permission to file a federal lawsuit in April that claims supervisors instructed him to “distance himself” from a black colleague.

The agency denied the allegations in a court filing.

TPWD spokeswoman Lydia Saldana said the broader issue of minority hiring is a “business imperative” for the state parks system and highlighted recent strides, including a diverse class of 11 summer interns in the law enforcement division. Five are black and two are Hispanic, and the agency has also launched a diversity task force and put new emphasis on minority promotion.

Yet amid complaints and allegations, an outside review commissioned by the agency and obtained by The Associated Press urged the state to “substantially improve deficiencies” when it comes to hiring and promoting minorities.

“A significant number of the game wardens who were interviewed by the firm, for example, lamented that many of the senior game wardens who have since retired have left a legacy of intolerance and favoritism in the division,” read a report from the Austin law firm Davis Kaufman, which was delivered to lawmakers in April.

Game wardens are the public face of a 3,000-person agency that manages state parks, enforces hunting and fishing laws and has even expanded into border security in recent years. That face is predominantly white and male, making up more than 75 percent of the state’s roughly 500 game wardens.

Fewer than 40 are women, and there are about 65 Hispanic men. Only 13 are black, all but two of whom were hired before 2005.

The agency paid for the Davis Kaufman report — and a second one still being completed — following an August story in the alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle that quoted game wardens alleging a history of institutional racism at TPWD. The story troubled members of black caucus leaders in the Texas Legislature, who were told in a letter from Carter Smith, the agency’s executive director, “just how seriously we take this matter.”

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, chairman of the black caucus in the statehouse, said his office continues to receive allegations of racism or discrimination from game wardens or their families.

“The smoke keeps coming,” Turner said. “I’ve been hearing this since last year and (the agency) keep telling me, ‘That’s not the case, that’s not the case, that’s not the case’ and they keep trying to excuse it. But at some point in time, something is amiss here.”

Jackson was among a class of 38 in this year’s TPWD game warden academy that began in January, and one of just two black cadets. Both quit before graduating. In an interview with AP, Jackson alleged that instructors more closely scrutinized and punished her than white cadets.

She described being given just one chance to master a swimming survival exercise, unlike white cadets. Supervisors also chastised her about a small tattoo concealed with makeup, Jackson said, while a white classmate arrived at the academy with body ink covering the length of his arm.

“They told me that I had traits inside me that I couldn’t overcome, that I just needed to leave and quit,” Jackson said. “(An instructor) never explained to me by the ‘traits,’ but I just assumed he meant me being a black female.”

Saldana said Wednesday she had not seen the complaint and declined comment. In response to earlier questions about the black cadets who left the academy this year, Saldana said the training center is “very demanding” and described some attrition as normal: In the last five years, about 16 percent of cadets never finish.

Saldana said TPWD is not alone in conservation agencies that have trouble recruiting minorities. She said no employees have been disciplined in wake of the discrimination allegations, and that $105,000 was spent on the Davis Kaufman report and the other the agency has yet to receive.

The Davis Kaufman report was not scathing, but instead urged the agency to change hiring policies, some of which were already underway. In a formal response to the report, the agency wrote, “natural resource agencies must recognize the value in workforce diversity.” It goes on to point out the changing demographics