Detroit City Council was subject to a workplace discrimination investigation in 2019, according to a document obtained by WDET News. The internal review centered on City Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López, the public body’s only Latina representative, who alleged she was being discriminated against by some of her colleagues.
“I don’t think there’s a council member that’s intentionally trying to be discriminatory,” Castañeda-López told WDET News. “I do believe strongly that there’s a lack of awareness around what implicit bias is and what it looks like.”
Castañeda-López’s allegations were recorded by Detroit’s Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity (CRIO) Department in a six-page summary of the investigation. WDET obtained the document through a Freedom of Information Act request.
CRIO’s probe was prompted by an inquiry made by Council President Brenda Jones and focused on allegations of “intimidation and hostile work environment” within City Council. In addition, civil rights investigators explored whether Castañeda-López was subject to discrimination based on her national origin while performing public duties.
While Detroit City Council is majority-Black, Castañeda-López stands apart. Born and raised in Southwest Detroit, Castañeda-López, who was elected in 2013 and represents District 6, is Detroit’s first Latina City Council Member. Her district covers much of Southwest Detroit where many of the city’s estimated 50,000 Hispanic or Latino residents live. According to a 2019 estimate from the U.S. Census, 78.3% of Detroit identifies as Black or African American. 7.7% identify as Hispanic or Latino. Most of the nine members that make up the legislative body of Detroit City Council are Black.
Still, Castañeda-López says she regularly experiences discrimination within her community and City Hall.
“Whether I’m out, going door-to-door and residents tell me to go back to Mexico or that I’m not Black so I’m not really from the city and I should leave,” explains Castañeda-López. “But to things that seem innocuous or harmless that happen just in people’s everyday conversations, like referring to me as a ‘spicy Latina’ or saying ‘you and your people always do A-B-C,’ or referring to me as ‘Southwest Detroit.’ The list goes on and on.”
In its report, CRIO determined that Castañeda-López was not discriminated against while performing her duties. Furthermore, the office did not find sufficient evidence to suggest Detroit City Council members are working in a hostile work environment, or that any had engaged in intimidation tactics.
During the civil rights department’s investigation, some members of Detroit City Council levied their own accusations of racial insensitivity towards Castañeda-López.
“During the course of the investigation, multiple witnesses raised concerns that Council Member Castañeda-López herself may be engaging in discriminatory treatment,” CRIO Director Charity Dean wrote in her conclusion of the investigation. “This issue arose because of negative interactions she had with male African-American council members.”
CRIO’s investigation “does not substantiate or negate” the claim that Castañeda-López engaged in discriminatory treatment of her Black male counterparts.
But Castañeda-López disagrees with the conclusions laid out by CRIO and feels the department misrepresented its findings to her upon completion.
“I feel like the report was about me, versus about clearly investigating how discrimination may play out in the workplace. All the information that I had shared was not included at all,” Castañeda-López says. “That was shocking to me.”
Castañeda-López says she was unaware that CRIO’s investigation was centered around the question of whether she was being discriminated against based on her national origin. The report did not explore possible gender or age discrimination.
Castañeda-López argues that CRIO failed to broaden its interviews to other employees in City Hall who regularly interface with Detroit City Council. All nine council members and three staff members were subjected to witness interviews during the investigation. Camera footage from committee meetings was also reviewed.
“You got to draw the line somewhere,” Dean told WDET. “Specifically, the Council President asked us to look into these allegations of discrimination by the Council for (Castañeda-López), not necessarily what staff are doing.”
Dean acknowledges Castañeda-López’s status as the only Latina on Detroit City Council. “However, she is not the only female, person of color, or youngest member on this nine-member board,” Dean wrote in her 2019 report.
Dean says she personally conducted the interviews of city council members following President Jones’s request, which came after allegations of discrimination made by Castañeda-López during a Facebook Live video over the 2019 budget hearings.
“If I’m being really honest about what I observed during that time, I think a lot strong words are used between peers and colleagues that could be mitigated by just building better professional relationships,” Dean says.
In the report’s conclusion, CRIO suggested contracting a third-party mediator to address conflict resolution within City Council as part of its recommendations stemming from its investigation. The department also proposed implicit bias and discrimination training for council members and staff and separate training outlined in city executive orders on workplace violence and sexual harassment.
Council President Jones was left to make the determination on conflict resolution following CRIO’s recommendations for the public body. But neither Dean nor Castañeda-López is aware of the implementation of any of the department’s recommendations outside of training that is regularly scheduled by the city.
Unwelcome Touching & “Gaslighting”
The investigation offers insight into how conflicts over city business have bruised the council’s professional relationships and the limitations to how CRIO responds to allegations of discrimination within elective bodies.
“The people of the City of Detroit have elected the council, so there’s always just going to be a recommendation for the council to decide how they implement,” Dean explains. “Whereas if we’ve got department directors that are engaging in discrimination, the penalties are much more severe. We can fire you.”
According to the summary, Castañeda-López discrimination claims involve incidents of “being interrupted or cut off while speaking, being given less time to speak during council meetings, and a failure by City Council members to consistently follow its rules,” during City Council’s budget discussions in March and April 2019.
“I think there are sexist undertones to feel entitled to touch your female colleague. I think it’s undermining and gaslighting to make this a racial conversation. It’s just about professional boundaries and respecting people’s personal space.” — Raquel Castañeda-López
In one incident described by the civil rights department, Council Member Scott Benson placed his hand on Castañeda-López’s arm while attempting to reposition his view during a budget hearing. Investigators say Castañeda-López considered the action an assault and urged a sergeant with the Executive Protection Unit to intervene. Benson told CRIO that he was offended by her action, considering it a racially insensitive overreaction.
Castañeda-López believes the investigation misrepresented her reaction to the incident and failed to present the situation as part of a string of recent physical encounters she had with Benson.
“I think there are sexist undertones to feel entitled to touch your female colleague. I think it’s undermining and gaslighting to make this a racial conversation,” Castañeda-López explains. “It’s just about professional boundaries and respecting people’s personal space.”
Castañeda-López maintains that the incident with Benson had a resounding effect on her recollection of events. “It was really difficult and I cried multiple times and I blocked out different meetings.”
After looking through the many Facebook Live videos she recorded throughout the 2019 budget briefings, Castañeda-López recalls feeling uncomfortable by the events with Benson, recounting another incident where she was subjected to his yelling. “I didn’t feel comfortable sitting by (Benson) afterwards, which is why I didn’t for a period of months.”
“Unfortunately, as a woman of color, we’re held to different standards,” Castañeda-López added.
During another budget discussion, CRIO recounts a “verbal dispute” between Castañeda-López and Council Member Andre Spivey, which resulted in a heated conversation that continued through council recess. Spivey recalled to investigators that he was insulated by Castañeda-López’s actions, telling her “You’re not going to castigate another Black man at this table.”
Investigators say many council members and staff complained about “long-winded” remarks led by Castañeda-López, with one witness describing her as “monopolizing time” during meetings.
Castañeda-López was also noted for having separate conflicts with Council Member Roy McCalister, Jr. and President Jones. Investigators characterize the events as “sporadic incidents” fueled by tension surrounding budget talks.
“I have always enjoyed a respectful working relationship with all my colleagues on Council. I believe the events described in the CRIO report can be attributed to the long hours and sometimes contentious debate around the budget deliberations,” wrote McCalister in a statement concurring with the report’s findings. “I believe each has their opinions and views, which is even more distinctive with our Detroit City Council because each member respects and considers the concerns for their respective constituents, as well as all citizens of Detroit.”
Other council members, including Jones, Benson and Spivey, did not return WDET’s request for an interview or would not comment for this story.
“The Tip of the Iceberg”
Experts in city law call the Detroit City Council investigation “unusual.”
“These legislative bodies are supposed to be open. There are waivers under the First Amendments for actually slandering people, ” explains Gary Benjamin, a civil rights attorney who teaches at Wayne State University. “It’s pretty rare to see any kind of charge between sitting legislators.”
But overall, Benjamin says the investigation seems above board. “It’s pretty hard these days to prove a harmful atmosphere case,” Benjamin explains. “It looks like they did their jobs and came out with a report that is legally correct.”
“As with any investigation or report, if you don’t see the underlying material, you don’t really know how good it is.”
CRIO’s six-page summary of the Detroit investigation does not offer interview transcripts, quotes from meetings or specific dates of incidents.
“It might potentially be happening to other council members as well, or it might be happening to other members that work for the city as well, in city agencies. We don’t understand probably the magnitude and the scope of this problem. This is potentially just the tip of the iceberg.” — Dr. James Wright II, Askew School of Public Administration at Florida State University
Those who study social justice see underlying problems with the conduct of some of Detroit’s elected officials.
“Oftentimes men are more prone to put their hands on women and we know that that can be derogatory,” says Dr. James Wright II, who studies critical race theory at the Askew School of Public Administration at Florida State University. “I think you have to establish rules and practices on when that’s acceptable.”
Wright says it’s important to understand that communities of color are not monolithic and often intergroup tension between minority groups can arise.
“We know Black Americans don’t have a lot of power in the United States. Latino Americans don’t have a lot of power in the United States. And given the space that we’re in, culturally, politically and socially, they’re both trying to use the little space that they have to accumulate some power so that they can then give back to their community. These are two marginalized identities within the United States and still we see that there is this dialogue and this conflict that is happening.”
Wright says investigations like CRIO’s are limited by time, memory and our personal understanding of what problematic conduct is. As result, discriminatory behavior can escalate when it goes unchecked and official reports sometimes fail to capture the full scope of conflict within a workplace.
“It might potentially be happening to other council members as well, or it might be happening to other members that work for the city as well, in city agencies,” says Wright. “We don’t understand probably the magnitude and the scope of this problem. This is potentially just the tip of the iceberg.”
Both Wright and Benjamin agree that CRIO’s recommendations should be implemented, to prevent potential legal culpability and future harm. “It’s a caution that if more happens and they haven’t done this, that this could be evidence against councilpersons,” says Benjamin.
“If you don’t go forward with implementation of those recommendations, you will continue to perpetuate the same behavior over and over. And these conflicts will continue to escalate,” says Wright. “This signals to the next generation of leadership that it’s common practice on the city council to do these things, and it’s going to build a common narrative.”
Castañeda-López believes that Detroit City Hall has not been proactive in addressing racial justice and social equity, leaving the door open to misconduct.
“I had told (Council President) Jones since 2015 that not just my staff, but other staff members, including her own staff members felt like there was sexual harassment going on, and nothing was done,” says Castañeda-López. “It wasn’t that it was the first time we had these types of conversations.”
Detroit City Council’s professional relationships will be put to the test this year, as the city manages the coronavirus pandemic and related state-ordered shutdowns. Detroit is expected to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue as a result.
But even if the legislative body fails to resolve its conflicts, its members may not have to wait too long for change. City Council primaries take place in August and the general election is in November.
“I haven’t talked about these things and I think it’s because, like, I’m a leader, right? I’m an elected official,” Castañeda-López adds. “Where do you go to complain or share these concerns?”