Co-workers called him “boy” and “damn nigger” and other racial slurs. Sometimes, they said it to his face, Other times, they scrawled it on his locker.
Clenton “Tony” Blake never stood still for any of it.
A shipping clerk in a Spokane bread factory, Blake filed complaint after complaint with the company, only to watch the abuse continue for 16 years.
Vindication finally came Friday afternoon, when a Spokane County Superior Court jury found Continental Baking Co. guilty of racial harassment and awarded Blake $50,000 in punitive damages.
The all-white jury of seven women and five men rejected Blake’s additional claim of retaliation.
“No other human being should suffer what I’ve suffered in the workplace,” Blake, 48, said later, blinking back tears.
“I think the jury sent a very clear and strong message. I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart.”
“We’re disappointed,” said Seattle attorney Richard Robinson, representing Continental Baking. “I don’t believe the evidence supports that he was ever racially harassed.”
Robinson said only a handful of racially motivated incidents were substantiated by the company and they triggered written reprimands.
The Washington Human Rights Commission has twice investigated Blake’s claims and found them to be without merit, Robinson said.
But Blake and his attorney, Kenneth Isserlis of Spokane, argued that minorities at the North Post bread factory were repeatedly victimized by racist white employees and bosses.
In one incident, two white foremen repeatedly used the word “nigger-rigged” in Blake’s presence to describe temporary repairs to equipment.
In response to Blake’s complaint, the men said the word “just slipped out.”
“Precious little corrective action was taken,” Isserlis said. “Year in, year out, it never stopped.”
Some racist conduct was dismissed by the company as childish pranks, such as the time banana peels were thrown in Blake’s locker and chili was used to deface an Hispanic man’s “Employee of the Month” picture.
In July 1994, Blake was horrified to see a noose hanging from the rafters where he was loading racks of buns into trucks.
Company officials investigated and determined it was a protest over working conditions.
When the Teamsters Union urged the company on Blake’s behalf to start putting its 200-plus employees through “diversity training,” officials refused, finding no need.
During his testimony, Blake spoke of his grandfather being lynched by whites in Arkansas, and of his father enduring a lifetime of verbal abuse.
Blake, a Vietnam veteran, said he thought all that was a thing of the past - a dark corner of American history - until he began working at the historic brick-walled factory in 1979.
In his first months on the job, he said a white co-worker called him “boy.”
Continental Baking, the maker of Wonder Bread, is the nation’s biggest wholesaler of fresh bakery products, with 35 U.S. factories and 20,000 workers.
Robinson said Continental is “committed to eradicating racism in the workplace,” but he conceded that the jury’s message is to put words into action.
“I think they’re asking for us to pay more attention,” he said.
Blake, who is married and lives on the South Hill, said he kept his job because he didn’t want to abandon his fight against racism.
“I’ve been deeply wounded,” he told the jury earlier this week. “The internal scars - if we put them in weight, we would need a crane or maybe an elephant to move it. That’s how deeply I’ve been hurt.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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