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Racial Tension Rises at Barry

Oswald Jones was fired after reporting a hate crime.
C. Stiles

Oswald Jones steered a white golf cart across the manicured, palm tree-lined postcard that is Barry University's western campus. After the easygoing, Jamaican-born technician arrived at a tool shop near the school of podiatric medicine, he pulled a piece of salmon from his lunchbox and popped it into the microwave. Then he saw it: a thick noose — fashioned with rope and black electrical tape — dangling from a hunk of metal.

"It was a message: History repeats itself," Jones says. "People get hurt after events like this." The 52-year-old felt his face grow hot with humiliation. A few salty tears rolled down his bearded cheeks.

The date was October 23, 2007, and it wasn't the first time Jones had been harassed on campus. So the 11-year Barry employee snapped a photo, called in three witnesses, phoned Miami Shores Police, and reported the noose to campus public safety. Two weeks later, he was fired. Soon after that, Jones filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the school, alleging he had been booted in retaliation for drawing attention to what he considered a hate crime.

"When he reported it, all the [university] did was laugh it off," says Rajendar Deosaran, an apprentice technician — and witness — who worked the same shift and quit in 2008. "He is knowledgeable, polite, and professional. But he didn't take the role supervisors wanted him to — and that was house Negro."

The incident might be dismissed as nothing more than a complaint from a fired worker, were it not for a series of racially charged incidents that have plagued the small Catholic college in Miami Shores. Though Barry has an extraordinarily diverse student body — or perhaps because of its diversity — there's a complicated history of tension among the largely Anglo faculty, minority staff, and a student body with roots across the United States and Caribbean. It's told through five lawsuits, two Miami-Dade Equal Opportunity Board reports, and the testimony of six employees and seven students interviewed by New Times.

Says Carmen Haybieng, former program director for adult continuing education, who worked for 15 years at Barry: "Management goes against black people with aspirations. If you don't have any ambition, they're OK with you."

The university, which includes minorities at almost every level of management, fervently denies any overt or covert racism: "Barry University is a diverse, minority-serving institution and does not tolerate racial prejudice or tension of any kind," Barry spokesman Jeremy Jones said in a statement emailed to New Times. "We celebrate the diversity that makes up our university, which can be seen in our students, employees, and numerous culture events and community outreach projects.

"Any suggestion that there is a history of racial tension at this University is completely false and unwarranted."

When Barry was founded in 1940 by a trio of Irish-Catholic clergy members, it was an all-girls college of 45 — far from the melting pot it is today. The first African-American graduate — a fair-skinned 20-year-old named Cassandra Roberson — wasn't admitted until 1962. "I was scared to death," she told Barry Magazine last year.

By 1996, the school had become the most diverse in the South, according to US News and World Report, which cited Barry for "students who believe that studying with people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds is important."

But beneath the rainbow, there was conflict. The majority of faculty was still Caucasian. Most of the security guards and maintenance workers were minorities.

During the next six years, three lawsuits filed in federal district court — all of which were settled or dismissed — pointed to the problem, even though Barry was never forced to take any action.

• In 1996, Massood Jallali — a Persian student in the school of podiatry — sued Barry, claiming he "endured constant prejudicial treatment" because of "his brown skin." He said a professor had intentionally sabotaged his chances at residency by losing his exam. A judge dismissed the case.

• In January 1999, Chiffon Holiday — an African-American nursing student with straight A's — sued after she was rejected by the graduate school of nursing. "[Barry] has admitted into its program non-black students" who "fail to meet criteria," she claimed. The case was dropped after she didn't file court papers on time.

• In 2002, Marcy Ortiz — a Puerto Rican librarian who had worked six years at the school — claimed in a lawsuit she was fired because she "complained about management's continuous, vitriolic, racist attitudes towards blacks and Puerto Ricans." She was replaced by "a non-Puerto Rican." Barry settled the case out of court.

A more dramatic — and public — event occurred in November 2003. Director of student activities Jay Gannon instructed Alberto Fernandez — a well-liked assistant dean of information technology — to remove images of black students from a Barry University calendar. The original photograph showed former presidential candidate and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole at a debate with about 20 Barry students in the audience. In the center foreground were three black females. The edited photo shows images of white men pasted over images of the women.

 

When the calendar was released that January, the manipulation became public and students of all races complained to administration. On January 30, Gannon was fired due to "grave errors in judgment," according to the school newspaper, the Buccaneer. Three days later, Fernandez was terminated.

(Fernandez, who later filed a lawsuit defending himself, stated "at no time was the race of the students mentioned." The case is still open.)

At the time, an article in the Buccaneer stated, "Students and faculty believed [manipulation of the photo] to be racially motivated." The paper also reported a student named Nicole Rangle claimed she had been threatened by administration for "orchestrating a protest."

Meghan Walles, who is white, was one of the journalists for the Buccaneer at the time. Instead of addressing the problem, she says, Barry leadership tried to keep things hush-hush. "When you look at a Barry brochure, they are trying to personify peaceful diversity," says the recent graduate. "They're really good at hiding stuff."

There were also complaints by school employees. Travis West, who worked as a security guard on campus for three years beginning in 2004, says his experience at Barry was difficult emotionally and professionally. "White supervisors always had less experience," he says, and claims his boss once called African-American employees "monkeys" over a radio. He says he was fired two days after he reported racial slurs.

Other times, it was more subtle. Says 15-year employee Carmen Haybieng, who resigned in 2008: "A nun looked at me once and asked, 'Do you people get suntans?'"

Adds five-year security guard Rodney Brantley, who was fired: "Barry doesn't like black people."

The Miami-Dade Equal Opportunity Board has also received racial discrimination complaints against the university. In January 2007, Barry employee Edda Pierre-Paul filed a complaint — though the EOB couldn't provide it despite repeated requests for information over two weeks. This past December, Lindel Thomas, an outgoing Jamaican-born field supervisor of public safety at Barry, claimed his boss "made fun of my accent, said he couldn't understand me, and acted like I was stupid." Thomas was terminated days after reporting it. He claims it was retaliation. (The case was dismissed for lack of evidence.)

"Barry tramples people's rights and steps on minorities," he later told New Times. "But they're hard to beat [in court.]"

The case of Oswald Jones — the technician who discovered the noose in his quarters — is perhaps the most striking. Jones attended Barry as a student after emigrating from Jamaica in 1979. He says he was drawn to the university because of an offer to help pay for his family's education. He worked there 11 years, earned three awards for his performance, and has a stack of recommendation letters from Barry professors.

After he discovered the noose, though, things changed. He claims that at the same shop three days later, he found a white sheet propped up on an air-conditioning unit, which he believes was meant to resemble a KKK hood and that it was a message for him to keep quiet. Ten days later, he was fired. A review of documentation provided by Jones raises questions about the firing. A notice of termination signed by maintenance manager Neil Stewart states Jones was let go because he "stormed into the shop" and said "there is no justice here." It concludes, "No one is sure why he mentioned it, but they are taken aback by the comments." The document also shows supervisors cited "unexcused absences" on days that schedules show Jones wasn't supposed to work. All "violations" noted on the document were recorded after October 23, 2007 — the day he reported the noose. "I did what I've always done," he says. "And all of a sudden, it's a problem."

These days, the number of black employees in positions of power is small. Less than 6 percent of Barry professors are black, according to statistics provided by the university. A school spokesperson says about 13 percent of non-faculty employees in leadership roles are black. And there is no record of the school ever hiring a black head of a department.

Though other institutions, such as the University of Miami, have been criticized on racial grounds by former employees, the number of complaints against Barry in federal court and with the EOB is disproportionately high, considering the tiny size of the student body.

Last week, outside the campus cafeteria, students told New Times they believed the problem is worse among employees than students. They blamed Barry administration more for covering up than committing acts of prejudice. Said 22-year-old nursing major Mariela Echavarria: "There are definitely race-based cliques... But I don't think color matters to students."

 

Dr. Evelyn Cartwright, director of African studies, has worked at the university nine years. She says security guards and maintenance workers such as Jones likely aren't treated with the same racial and ethnic sensitivity as professors. Told about Jones's case, Cartwright said simply: "It's very disturbing."


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