The city of High Point acknowledges in a federal court filing that its human resources director admonished Al Heggins that using the term “white supremacy” was equivalent to the racial slur n***** as a basis for an initial disciplinary action that led to the former human relations director’s firing.
The city of High Point has acknowledged that its human resources director counseled a department head that the phrase “white supremacy” was equivalent to the racial slur n***** during a meeting to discipline her for “inefficiency in the performance of her job duties and poor judgment.”
The admission comes in an answer filed by the city on Sept. 16 to a civil suit filed by former Human Relations Director Al Heggins alleging that the city, City Manager Greg Demko and Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin engaged in employment discrimination and created a racially hostile work environment. Heggins was eventually fired at the culmination of a series of disciplinary actions after organizing a “Black and Blue” forum to promote dialogue about police/community relations in March 2015.
While denying that the city subjected Heggins to a hostile work environment, violated her civil rights or otherwise engaged in any unlawful activities, the city admits that McCaslin and the city’s human resources director met with Heggins 11 days after the “Black & Blue” forum “and verbally warned plaintiff about “inefficiency in the performance of her job duties and poor judgement.” The city also admitted that a day earlier Demko and the city’s communications officer met with Heggins “to discuss her department’s communications and to discuss protocol for all city communications going forward.”
At issue was a flier sent out by Heggins, who is black, to publicize a March 28, 2015 event at City Hall headlined “Black & Blue: A Conversation Between the African-American Community and the High Point Police Department.” The program included a presentation by Barbara Lawrence, a professor at Guilford College who holds a law degree and formerly served as a transit police officer in New York City. The flier included a description of Lawrence’s presentation with the heading, “Police Accountability & Citizen Oversight: A Framework for Dismantling White Supremacy and Establishing Real Justice in the 21st Century.”
The city admitted in its recent court filing that the human resources director, Angela Kirkwood, “counseled” Heggins during the April 8 meeting “that using the term white supremacist was as offensive as calling a black person a n*****.” Kirkwood is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
[pullquote]”Hearing what the city said about ‘white supremacy’ being equivalent to the use of the term ‘n*****,’ that was shocking, disgusting and an absolute step backwards for the city of High Point.” — Winston-Salem Urban League President James Perry[/pullquote]Heggins alleges in her lawsuit that “McCaslin had no reaction, and sat mute which plaintiff construed as [his] tacit approval of the director of human resources’ outrageous statement.”
James Perry, president of the Winston-Salem Urban League, said the city’s admission helps make the case that racial hostility fed into Heggins’ firing, whatever other reasons might be put forward in support of the decision. Prior to leading the Urban League, Perry served as executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, where he litigated housing discrimination cases. Perry said employment discrimination cases are often more difficult to prove than housing cases because of the challenge of isolating for race to establish that a white person would have been treated differently.
“Most of the time the employers won’t admit they said something that clearly indicates there’s been a discriminatory environment in the workplace,” he said. “One of the things that’s really interesting here is that in admitting this statement it seems to me that either High Point doesn’t realize that when they say using the term ‘white supremacy’ is the same as calling a person ‘n*****,’ when they say there’s some equivalency, when they don’t see that this is a smoking gun in a discrimination case or they don’t realize that they have made the case for Heggins.”
Perry responded with open laughter to the city’s stated objections to the term “white supremacy.”
“Hearing what the city said to her about ‘white supremacy’ being equivalent to the use of the term ‘n*****,’ that was shocking, disgusting and an absolute step backwards for the city of High Point,” he said.
Bernita Sims, the legal redress chair of the High Point NAACP, said the organization has adopted a formal resolution in support of Heggins’ lawsuit and has met with the police department to promote dialogue.
“We want to work to make sure that lines of communication remain open and we want to make sure that policing in High Point takes into consideration the opportunity for training police officers on racial diversity,” she said. Sims was elected mayor in 2012, and resigned in 2014 before pleading guilty to a felony worthless check charge related to a family estate settlement.
David L. Woodward, a lawyer with Poyner Spruill law firm in Raleigh who is representing the city, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Winston-Salem Urban League recently hosted two community-police town halls that shared the heading “Black & Blue” with the event that got Heggins in trouble in High Point. The Winston-Salem Police Department participated in the town halls, which were funded by the United Way of Forsyth County, the Winston-Salem Foundation and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.
Perry said he sees an irony in the fact that Heggins’ role in organizing a dialogue on police/community relations led to her dismissal.
“It was her job to host these kinds of conversations,” he said. “It’s pretty peculiar that they would prevent her from doing so.”
Given the history of the police being used to suppress black people’s civil and human rights in the United States, Perry said it’s incumbent on city government to promote a dialogue in which people feel free to express anger and frustration.
“One of the goals in the ‘Black & Blue’ forum [in Winston-Salem] is to repair the relationship between the African-American community and the police department,” he said. “In some ways, it’s to create one where there hasn’t been one. The most important history lesson for folks is to recall that when African Americans were protesting for basic civil and human rights, the police department was used as a weapon against them. This was a period when black folks were treated inhumanely in many different ways. When the government sought to reinforce that inhumanity, the weapon they used was the police department. The distrust that is there, starts there. Then it continues to the modern day and is exemplified in Ferguson, Baton Rouge, Charlotte and city after city in the deaths of African-American men at the hands of the police department.”
Pastor Brad Lilley, who spoke at the March 28, 2015 “Black & Blue” forum in High Point, expressed frustration in a Facebook message to Triad City Beat that the city is unwilling to hold a dialogue about police/community relations.
“It was our hope that much good would come out of those talks and the gap could have been bridged,” he said. “So here we are still needing to bridge the gap, still needing to address the concerns of the black community as it relates to policing our neighborhoods. Opportunities to build trust, confidence and transparency are continuing to be missed. Al Heggins is becoming the city’s whipping post, and at the same time has become another voice for equality who is being shut down. History will show her to be a people’s champion, an advocate for equality for all.”