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Lawsuit alleges years of anti-Black discrimination at San Diego area college

Southwestern College campus with the college sign and people on the sidewalks.
Southwestern College
(Current and former Black employees at Southwestern College have filed a discrimination lawsuit against the community college. )

It has been 18 months since USC researchers exposed “a palpable climate of anti-Blackness at Southwestern College” that included Black employees being called racial slurs and being overlooked for promotions.

And even though the San Diego County community college has taken significant steps to address the report’s findings, five current and former Black employees have filed a discrimination lawsuit, suggesting the problems persist.

The lawsuit references USC’s report and outlines the employees’ allegations, which occurred both before and after the report was published in June 2018 and mirror the researchers’ findings.

USC’s report highlighted individual instances — such as Latino custodial staff making monkey sounds at Black coworkers through walkie-talkies and a Black employee being relocated from the main campus because a white female coworker said she was afraid of him — that collectively painted a damning picture of institutional anti-Black racism on campus.

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A student and employee survey conducted in March showed that 40% of employees felt there was a lot of racial tension at Southwestern College and that 50% of employees had witnessed discrimination on campus.

In response to this story, Southwestern College issued the following statement:

“Southwestern College takes pride in being the only public institution of higher education in Southern San Diego County serving a diverse community of students and employees. Southwestern College works to embrace our wonderful diversity and always strives to foster a collaborative and inclusive environment.

“Southwestern College has long had policies against racism and discrimination. The College will continue to uphold the highest professional standards for all its employees and will continue to build and strengthen equity and inclusion in the workplace. The College is committed to remaining a leader in San Diego County to ensure there is no place for racial discrimination in our community.”

Southwestern College declined to directly answer any questions about the lawsuit or make employees available for interviews. Instead, the college referred specific questions to an outside attorney.

The newly formed alliance will train college representatives on topics like hiring and retaining faculty of color, fostering inclusive classrooms and integrating race across the curriculum.

“Southwestern College was made aware of the lawsuit that has been filed by current and former employees alleging racial discrimination in their employment with the college,” President Kindred Murillo wrote in a statement. “The College is reviewing the complaint, takes the allegations raised seriously and will address any issues in an appropriate and thorough manner.”

The outside attorney, Aaron Hines of the Winet Patrick Gayger Creighton & Hanes law firm, said he was still reviewing the 37-page complaint. The document contains several allegations and names dozens of individuals; therefore, it will take some time to determine their validity.

“It’s probably premature to comment on any specific allegation,” he said.

One of the most recent allegations is said to have happened in January. Brandon Williams, a 29-year-old Black man, claims tension between the counseling department’s Black workers and everyone else was so high that he was the only Black employee to attend a training retreat.

During a discussion on race, a Latino employee dismissed USC’s report by allegedly claiming that there “is no anti-Blackness on campus; instead, the campus is anti-Latino.” When Williams brought up the report to challenge the claim, his fellow coworkers were unmoved, according to the lawsuit.

Another Black employee who is suing Southwestern, Veronica Burton, has worked in the counseling department since 1998. As one of the most senior employees, she applied for the role of acting dean in 2018, the role that eventually went to Dean Aragoza.

“Despite being the most qualified candidate on paper, having had the most relevant experience, including specific experience to SWCCD, Burton was again passed over for the promotion,” the lawsuit states. “Burton believes that her race played the most important role in her being denied the Interim Dean position.”

Burton was particularly upset that Aragoza got the job, because he had previously told coworkers in the department that he had “issues” with Black people, particularly with Black men, according to the lawsuit.

“According to Aragoza’s own admission, whenever he would be in meetings with Black employees, he would shake because he would be scared and nervous,” the lawsuit says. “Not because any person in said meeting did anything to Aragoza, but instead solely because of the person’s Black skin.”

Abdimalik Buul was at that meeting where Aragoza admitted to being scared of Black men. Buul, who left Southwestern College after a series of what he described as discriminatory incidents, is a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.

A $100-million donation from the Jay Pritzker Foundation will provide scholarships and emergency financial aid to tens of thousands of students.

After USC’s report was published, Buul joined a task force meant to address racism on campus. He claims the task force got off to a poor start.

During one task force meeting, a long-tenured employee accused Buul of “colluding” with the author of the USC report. That employee had no proof Buul even knew the author of the report; she simply noticed that both Buul and the author were Black men and both had a connection to USC.

“[Her] knee-jerk response is indicative of the ‘us vs. them’ culture that SWCCD has allowed to proliferate,” the lawsuit says.

During another task force meeting, the same employee “decided that using her best judgment meant that she could say [the n-word] in the meeting. While [she] was verbally reprimanded for her comments, her comfort in saying such derogatory terms in a professional setting spoke volumes about SWCCD’s anti-Black environment,” the lawsuit states.

Two other Black employees of the counseling department allege similar stories of being treated differently from their non-Black coworkers.

In 2015, Stacey Mathis had a baby and started pumping breastmilk at work. She’d seen other mothers do the same and didn’t think there would be a problem.

However, the person in charge of scheduling told Mathis that she could pump for only 15 minutes a day and anything beyond that would come out of her paycheck, the lawsuit alleges.

“Mathis’ non-Black coworkers were not subject to this rule,” according to the lawsuit.

The pressure of Southwestern College’s working environment, “all of the little slights, the stares, the ostracization, the speaking in different languages to exclude Mathis from the conversation,” began to take its toll.

James Rose claims he was denied overtime work during the fall 2019 semester even though other non-Black workers in the counseling department were given overtime.

When he confronted Aragoza about this, the acting dean became angry and “claimed that Rose was ‘living above his means.’ ”

According to the lawsuit, Aragoza and Rose had never discussed personal finances, so Aragoza had no reason to make that statement.

“Aragoza’s comments further cemented in Rose’s mind that the real reason for Aragoza denying Rose’s overtime request was not because of SWCCD’s lack of money, but instead because of Aragoza’s pre-conceived and bigoted notions about Black people and their alleged misuse of finances,” the lawsuit states.

Solis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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