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Atf Settlement A Good First Step

Fri., July 12, 1996

It’s no secret that many African-American ministers and civil-rights leaders have been deeply skeptical of the commitment of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to investigate the wave of black-church burnings.

This distrust stems in part from the involvement of ATF agents in the notoriously racist, licentious and just plain juvenile “good ol’ boy roundups.” Now, added grounds for concern have been disclosed.

The ATF has agreed to settle a class action that pays African-American agents more than $4.6 million in compensation for discriminatory treatment every bit as noxious as that found in evidence at the “roundups” themselves.

The way the ATF has treated African-Americans in its own ranks leaves no doubt that the agency itself has been part of the problem. A black agent, an 18-year veteran, recalls his training supervisor calling him “‘nigger.’ Supervisors calling (black custodial workers) ‘nigger,’ … telling jokes using the word ‘nigger.”’

Another agent reported a training-academy supervisor telling him he “was born trash, would live trash and die trash.” A female African-American agent was told by a curly-haired white female agent that she needed to buy another “nigger comb.”

Nor were the offenses limited to racial epithets. Hiring, promotion, assignment and disciplinary practices also highlight an agency that treats its agents differently - and badly - on the basis of race.

The National Association of Treasury Agents, which claims to represent more than 1,000 U.S. Treasury agents, denies the existence of widespread and systemic discrimination in the ATF and has denounced the settlement and overhaul of ATF’s hiring, training, disciplinary and performance evaluation procedures as a “sellout.”

But ATF Director John W. Magaw, who has a bird’s-eye view of his agency, offers a different assessment. He told a press conference the agreement “recognizes that the class members had grievances that had to be resolved.”

Confronted directly with the question of whether African-American ATF agents had faced a pattern of discrimination in his agency, Magaw didn’t waffle. “I believe clearly that there was,” he said.

Little wonder the ministers hold the agency in suspicion. The settlement is an important first step toward restoring the ATF’s credibility.

This editorial appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post.

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