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White Coworker Tried to Run Over Black Employee At Chicago’s Water Department and Superiors ‘Did Nothing,’ Discrimination Lawsuit Says

A proposed $5.8 million settlement for Black workers who were victims of racism, discrimination, retaliation and harassment at Chicago’s Water Department is awaiting review and approval by city leaders.

The settlement was announced on Monday, May 6, a month before a class action lawsuit filed by 12 current and former Black employees of the department was due to go to federal court for trial. Former Chicago mayor and current U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel may have been called upon to testify, according to a report by the Chicago Sun-Times.

“The racism lasted for decades and affected countless Black employees, which raises the question of why the city’s uppermost leaders failed to act,” said the employees’ attorney, Vic Henderson, who disclosed the settlement amount. “The sad and most obvious answer is that they did not care. Shame on them.”

White Chicago Water Department Workers Sent Email Joking That ‘Cotton Farmers’ Would ‘Start Bidding on’ Barack Obama During Speech, Discrimination Lawsuit Alleges
A photo of the aerial view of the Chicago skyline, including the Chicago Department of Water Management. (Photo: Facebook/Chicago Department of Water Management)

Many of the plaintiffs in the case worked for the Water Department for decades, but they allege they only make up a fraction of the countless Black workers who were victims of corporate racism.

Filed in 2017, the lawsuit accused white supervisors of passing them over for promotions, refusing to give them the same treatment as their white counterparts when they were injured on the job, and harassing them with racial slurs and jokes that were sent through email and said directly to their faces.

One of the plaintiffs, Derrick Edmond, worked for the Water Department for 33 years. He told the Sun-Times that he once had to go through 18 interviews to get a promotion that was being held for a “young white candidate.”

“What they want you to do is get discouraged and don’t go to the interview no more — and many of us do that. But I said I’m not stopping,” Edmond said. “So, I … kept on going. Then, they gave me the job and they turned around and took it back.”

Another plaintiff, Leslie Travis Cook, worked at the department for 20 years, the Sun-Times reported. She said a supervisor once threw a stapler at her, and a co-worker tried to run her over with a car. When she reported it to city officials, she said they “did nothing” and “dismissed” the co-worker’s action in the car as “horseplay.”

According to CBS News, there were also many emails filled with racist language, including racist jokes about former President Barack Obama, Black NASCAR drivers and Black Lives Matter members and supporters.

In one email labeled “Obama Angry with Texas,” the user wrote, “Obama will be making no more public speeches in Texas … He claims every time he gets up on stage to make a speech, some South Texas cotton farmers start bidding on him.”

Another with the subject line, “Black NASCAR Drivers?” in explaining the reason Black people are not really in the sport claimed, “there are no black NASCAR drivers” because “Pistol won’t stay under front seat,” “Engine noise drowns out the rap music,” and “They keep trying to carjack Dale Earnhardt Jr.”

The suit also alleges the supervisors’ behavior emboldened other white employees to follow suit.

“Observing the discriminatory pattern of treatment of African-American employees and hearing the racially derogatory language, other Caucasian employees learned that racially discriminatory behavior would not only be tolerated but that they themselves should engage in such behavior,” the lawsuit states.

Still, another email between two city employees said, “I really need to get out in the woods again if not to just be with the critters, but also to eradicate all the BLM idiots and all the bull—t from the idiots and criminals that back these.”

The aforementioned emails were uncovered, along with many other racist ones, during an investigation by Chicago’s then-Inspector General Joseph Ferguson. In 2018, after completing his review, Ferguson called for seven city employees to be fired from the Water Department.

They included Barrett Murphy, who then served as commissioner for the Water Department; William Bresnahan, a managing deputy; and Paul Hansen, who was the superintendent of the department’s North District at the time. Hansen is also the son of former Chicago Alderman Bernard Hansen.

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