55% of VA Staff Have Seen Racial Discrimination Against Vets, Union Says

A new union survey of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees indicates that 55 percent have witnessed racial discrimination against veterans.

The survey was released Friday by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), a national union that represents federal employees including hundreds of thousands of VA employees. The survey also found that 78 percent of VA employees believe racism is a moderate to serious problem at the VA and 76 percent said they had "experienced racially charged actions" while working there.

"It's shocking that in 2020, not only are we still having to contend with racism at an agency of the federal government, but that it's getting worse," AFGE National President Everett Kelley told reporters on Friday. "These survey results are shocking and unacceptable and must be addressed."

The AFGE says the survey is "the latest evidence of widespread racism and racial bias going unchecked at the VA under Secretary Robert Wilkie," who it notes was appointed by President Donald Trump amid controversy over his past statements in support of the Confederacy and his former membership in the group Sons of Confederate Veterans.

"This survey comes at a tipping point in our society where Black, brown and people of color across the world—and now across the VA—are speaking out against racial injustice and violence," Alma Lee, the president of AFGE's National Veterans Affairs Council, wrote in a letter addressed to Wilkie.

VA Building
A plaque featuring a quote from Abraham Lincoln is pictured outside the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington, D.C. in this 2018 file photo. Robert Alexander/Getty

"Members have been scared to come forward due to fear of retaliation, but with the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black men and women, employees of color are now increasingly speaking out about the racial discrimination they have witnessed and experienced firsthand at the VA," Lee added.

VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said in a statement obtained by Newsweek that the AFGE is "one of the least credible authorities in this country regarding harassment, abuse and unfair treatment." She suggested that the survey was intended to distract from a lawsuit against the organization's former president J. David Cox, who has been accused of sexual abuse and harassment. Cox resigned in February and has denied the allegations.

"VA does not tolerate harassment or discrimination in any form," Noel said. "If AFGE's stance against discrimination and harassment was as strong as VA's, perhaps union leaders wouldn't be subject to a lawsuit accusing them of fostering a culture that turned a blind eye to allegations of harassment."

A number of Black former VA workers insist that racism is a deep and ongoing concern at the agency. Navy veteran Charmayne Brown recently filed 18 complaints alleging racial discrimination at the Kansas City, Missouri VA Medical Center.

"I have endured racism at the VA my whole career – my whole life. I watched my grandmother go through it, and the VA will be damned before I watch my grandchildren go through it," Brown told The Kansas City Star. "I retired because I was tired of suffering these injustices every day."

Brown is one of 50 Black former or current VA employees who say they have directly experience racial discrimination at the Kansas City facility, according to the paper.

Update 8/10, 4:46 p.m.: This article has been updated to reflect that Newsweek received a statement from VA spokeswoman Christina Noel.