Parks, Wildlife, and Racism

Wardens recount longstanding, institutional discrimination against African-Americans at TP&W

Parks, Wildlife, and Racism
Illustration by Jason Stout

"Who becomes a Texas game warden is decided at conception," said one veteran warden at the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the agency charged with (among many other responsibilities) law enforcement in the state's park system. "The color of one's skin can mean 30 years of going nowhere," said another. Moreover, the racial barriers reportedly extend to wardens of any color who don't play along. "If you work well with a 'nigger,'" explained another warden, "you'll be treated like a 'nigger.'" (The black wardens generally avoid using the racial epithet themselves but say that's what they've been told by white staff members.)

Some wardens are saying that's just one of many unofficial racial principles long practiced (and occasionally made explicit) within the Texas Parks & Wildlife's Law Enforcement Division. One recalled: "I've heard that and much worse. We're all considered 'niggers' here."

Agency officials say they are aware of the institutional problems and history of racial discrimination and are determined to make changes – but thus far, the people most directly affected say they've seen little evidence of any reform.

Most of the wardens who spoke to the Chronicle declined to be named for fear of retaliation. But Sgt. Melvin Fowler of Pflugerville, who is black, and Warden John Rao, of Clear Lake, who is white – both veteran wardens with more than two decades of experience – have spoken out by filing formal complaints against the agency with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Fowler and Rao both graduated from the TP&W training academy in 1991. Their documents and the recollections of the African-American wardens portray a state agency that has been indifferent to institutional racial discrimination for many years, as well as to more direct, personal racism endured by African-American personnel – racism either ignored or condoned by supervisors.

In his 2010 complaint to the EEOC, Fow­ler alleges he "was subjected to unlawful employment discrimination when passed over for promotion to the rank of Captain after interviews were conducted ... by board members. The selectee ... has been employed a less time than I, has less seniority, training, law enforcement experience and investigative experience. All of the board members are White males and they did not select three candidates to proceed to a final interview panel, in violation of manual regulations requiring a minority member [on the board], and the selectee is White. I believe I have been discriminated [against] because of my race, Black/African." Fowler also alleged a conflict of interest concerning a private security company called Frontera Security and Investigations – most board members, as well as the selected candidate, were Frontera employees.

According to Rao's attorney, Delana Cline, the discrimination also affects white wardens who don't adhere to the racial caste system. "Blacks are targeted," said Cline. "They, by design, are to be the lowest-level wardens. If [a white warden] 'consorts' with one, he will stand at the bottom of the hierarchy, too. This practice is pervasive at TPW." Rao's 2010 EEOC complaint, still pending, alleges that TP&W subsequently retaliated against him after he filed an EEOC complaint in 2007 (ultimately unsustained) that alleged that TP&W had punished him for working with a black game warden.

Invisible and Unwanted

The raw TP&W staffing numbers appear to reflect a legacy of at least institutional neglect, if not systematic discrimination.

• Of 532 current TP&W game wardens, only 12 are African-American. (That works out to 2.3%; the state African-American population is about 12.2%. By comparison, the Texas Department of Public Safety has 9.9% black officers under commission.)

• Not one black male game warden has been hired at TP&W since 2005.

• Not one black game warden cadet is enrolled in the current academy class.

Current TP&W Director Carter Smith
Current TP&W Director Carter Smith

• Not one black game warden has ever achieved the rank of major or colonel.

• In the agency's history, only three African-Americans have achieved the rank of captain, and only in succession, one at a time.

• Over its 49 years of existence, only 1% of game wardens commissioned by TP&W have been African-Americans.

Why are the numbers so persistently low? TP&W is "a caste system," concluded one warden – maintaining a historical legacy under which African-American wardens are for the most part either not hired or not promoted. Fowler said that the statistics tell only the surface of the story. "It's just a feeling you don't matter, that you are invisible," he said. "Your input just doesn't matter; it's the overall attitude, the overall culture. No matter what, you don't get the chance to climb the ladder."

One black warden said he had noticed an aversion even to his presence at the officer academy. Again and again, he said, he would reach out to shake a white cadet's hand, and find himself "holding only air." "If you're black," he says he learned, "you better not extend that hand." Other white cadets would faux-whisper racist jokes behind his back, or more blatantly, when drunken in groups, "They'd all holler, 'nigger!'"

Once he became a warden, he says, following a period of human resources "cultural diversity" training, some white wardens would grudgingly extend him a hand – but only in the presence of supervisors. Over the years, he recalls, he worked well with prejudiced game wardens "one-on-one," but in public, "some wouldn't talk to me at all."

Officially, TP&W frowns on racial discrimination. "We can, must, and will do better," Executive Director Carter Smith told the Chronicle. But according to some Afri­can-American wardens, lower-level supervisors make it clear that unofficial practice was a different matter. "Them boys" – a supervisor told one black warden, referring to white wardens – "them boys ain't workin' for no niggers." As a result of that ingrained racist culture, black wardens say, they were expected to defer to their white colleagues.

Any warden who dared buck the explicit warnings or unwritten rules understood there would be consequences. "They'll be 'puttin' the paper' on you when you try to promote," said one, using the informal phrase meaning to meet opposition from supervisors. In their complaints, Rao and Fowler allege that's exactly what has happened to them.

Like It or Leave

Rao has master's degrees in both criminology and behavioral science, is a renowned authority on exotic fish species (routinely consulted by TP&W biologists), and is certainly a credit to the agency. In April 2007, Rao filed an EEOC "Charge of Dis­crim­in­ation," alleging that the department had retaliated against him for defying standing orders not to "work with" an African-American game warden.

Rao's complaint reads: "I began my employment in November 1989. ... Shortly after, Mr. Albert Lynch [Rao's supervising captain] began working at my location. I was told by Mr. Lynch not to work with Kelly Newman [a black warden]. ... Even though I was told this, I made the decision to work with Newman. On or about May 28, 2006, I was cursed out by [Warden] Mr. Kevin Mitchell, White. I was told by Ted Tolle, Major, that I needed to apologize to Mr. Mitchell for making him curse at me."

After Rao filed the 2007 complaint, said his attorney, "His life was never the same." The agency "put him under investigation [and] engaged in false allegations." In his complaint, Rao recounts that when he complained about the retaliation to human resources staff, he was told that "Law Enforcement is 'paramilitary,' and the retaliation laws do not apply to us."

In subsequent years, Rao applied for a series of promotions but was consistently rejected, including for two promotions in 2010. He eventually filed a second complaint, in 2010; it alleges that he once asked Assistant Chief Robert Goodrich (on a speakerphone with another officer present) the reason for yet another rejected application. According to Cline, Rao asked Good­rich "what he could have done differently in the [promotion] interview," reports Cline. "Goodrich indicated that there was nothing Mr. Rao could have done differently, because Pete Flores [then director of TP&W's Law Enforcement Division] had said that Rao had filed that complaint – meaning the 2007 Charge of Discrimination." Rao concluded, said Cline, he'd been "blackballed."

Former TP&W Director Pete Flores
Former TP&W Director Pete Flores

"My client didn't want to sue Parks & Wildlife [in 2007]; he just wanted it on record he'd had these problems," Cline said. "However, when Parks and Wildlife continued to pass Mr. Rao over for promotions, and [instead] promoted people without experience and accreditation, he decided, 'I am going to have to file another charge of discrimination in order to uphold my rights.'" So Rao filed his 2010 complaint, but the EEOC has yet to issue a determination; the agency could issue either a "determination of probable cause" (which normally moves to mediation), or what is formally designated a "right to sue."

Cline specifically blames former director Flores for Rao's inability to promote. "Pete Flores indicated to Goodrich that Rao wouldn't get the promotion; it wasn't Goodrich blocking Rao," Cline said. "Flores is very much part of the 'GOB' [Good Ol' Boys] network – believing 'do not turn on your brothers [and] do not go out of department.' That's our understanding," Cline said. "People at TPW, who step ... off the plantation, if you will – are not getting promoted."

Moreover, Cline claims that in August 2011, a captain from Houston named Nick Harmon convened members of Rao's department for a meeting and announced that other districts considered them "malcontents and complainers." As Cline tells it, "Harmon told the group, 'Going forward, all of you who complain: We will have paper in Austin ready for your release.'

"We contend that Harmon was speaking directly to our client, basically saying, 'If you don't like the situation, you can leave.'"

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