State should lead fight against bias
Mercy, we hope the nation’s governors were too focused on issues like education reform, homeland security and strengthening the Medicaid safety net to pay much attention to the local news when they were in town recently for the National Governors Association’s annual meeting. It’s not often that we’re embarrassed by Iowa or its state agencies. But our cheeks surely pinked on the state’s behalf on July 14 when a federal court jury awarded $232,000 in damages to Farrokh Fattahi, a former Iowa Department of Transportation employee who said he had been called a “towel head,” a “camel jockey” and a “damned Iranian” by his supervisor, who Fattahi claimed also ridiculed his Muslim beliefs.
If the governors were distracted by their weighty agenda, they might have missed the inescapable irony of timing. As one state agency licked its wounds and chewed on whether to appeal the verdict, another, the Iowa Civil Rights Commission, was tending to the final details of the 40th anniversary celebration of the Iowa Civil Rights Act’s enactment that would occur a week later. To be sure, Iowa is a fairer, more just and open state because of the legislation, which among other things prohibits discrimination based on religious affiliation. But the judgment against the IDOT took some of the buoyancy out of the celebration, providing another painful reminder of the work head in the fight against intolerance, discrimination and xenophobia.
When a government’s own agencies fail to provide the moral leadership in those battles, its civil rights laws are reduced to mere window dressing. IDOT officials should have responded with swift disciplinary action against the supervisor who mocked Fattahi, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Iran 40 years ago and had worked for IDOT for more than 20 years. Instead, they seem to have dismissed the supervisor’s actions as one would the purveyor of a racially offensive joke at a party – with a stony awkward silence that might convey disapproval, but would do little to define the behavior as unacceptable, rather than merely offensive.
There can be no doubt that intolerance is objectionable, both within government and outside it. That is especially true as anti-Islam sentiment, already strong in the years before 2000 when the derogatory comments were directed at Fattahi, infects post-9/11 America like cancer because of the actions of a few violently radical Muslims.
It’s not unreasonable to expect government officials to pick up the torch and shed light on the various insidious forms discrimination can take. Indeed, Iowans must demand it.