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The Black Avenger 

Milton Crawford exposes the DWP’s big whitewash... racism, intimidation and harassment

Thursday, Jul 22 2004
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Photo by Max S. Gerber

Like many black men of his generation, Milton Crawford never had room to make mistakes. Growing up in a family of 20 children in the South during the Great Depression, in a home where he was taught to give respect and demand it, Crawford learned the value of rules and discipline.

The Crawford family owned a farm and were among the few African-Americans in the town of Jefferson, Texas. Young Crawford and his brothers and sisters attended a segregated school and used the back door to enter public buildings. Crawford’s father drove the black school bus. On rainy days he would pick up the white kids to keep them from getting drenched and drop them off at their school. “They got on the bus, sat down, kept quiet, and they were the same as us,” recalls the 75-year-old Crawford. “My father didn’t tolerate any funny business. He’d swat the white kids with a strap as quickly as he’d swat the black ones.”

A strict upbringing served Crawford well. He focused on achievement, and made breakthroughs. In the 1940s, he joined a segregated military, where he was among the first African-Americans to receive legal training. Later he became one of the first black private investigators in California to obtain an independent insurance adjuster’s license. His deep sense of right and wrong had consequences, however — for him and for those who crossed his path. Crawford knew the ways of the military, and of society, but when he encountered unwritten rules that needed changing, his conscience told him not to turn away, but to fight. When he fought, he was formidable.

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In 1987, when Crawford became the first black claims investigator for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office assigned to the Department of Water and Power, he did not expect that over the next 10 years he would drag the DWP through an unprecedented number of employee grievances. Nor did he foresee that he would file his own discrimination lawsuit and win. Nor could he have imagined that later efforts to address harassment and retaliation at the nation’s largest public utility would fail so miserably, or that disparate treatment of women and minorities would remain a dirty secret to be kept from the public.

“I came from the private sector to work for a public entity, which should have a legal and moral obligation to its employees,” says Crawford, whose battles on behalf of other workers brought the heat down on him. “You’re talking about someone’s job, their livelihood, and I take that very seriously. All these anti-discrimination laws look so nice on paper. But when you test them, they fall apart. It’s not that complicated to follow the law if you have a sense of integrity.”

Jim Crow was long gone when Crawford arrived at the DWP in 1987, but it was still the white man’s world it has been since 1902, when an ambitious group of engineers led by William Mulholland founded it. Crawford was not the first to challenge the DWP’s white male–dominated culture, but he sounded a warning that it was in need of examination. Being branded a malcontent and followed on his off hours gnawed at his guts. In the world he had entered, white employees called the African-American wives of their co-workers “black hookers.” They called people “nigger” and posted swastikas to terrorize Jewish employees. Anyone who complained about rampant drinking and drug use on the job could suffer recrimination. Sending black line workers out to high-risk utility failures without backup put lives at risk.

In the front office at DWP, female employees complained of receiving pornography on their computers in retaliation for questioning why they didn’t get promotions. Fear of computer hacking, office bugs and car bombs arose in those who questioned the wrong people. When the equal-opportunity manager was thwarted by her own supervisors from investigating institutional discrimination at DWP, invoking the ire of both labor and management, she was warned of ruthless consequences.

Though his fighting days are over, Crawford is still rankled by what he sees as an entrenched, backward culture at the DWP. His assessment of the DWP is harsh, and some see Crawford as prone to propaganda and speechmaking, not solely motivated by justice.

Popular or not, Crawford’s demands for equality were hardly baseless. Having settled with Crawford in 1997, the City Attorney’s Office is still defending lawsuits that suggest the DWP continued to sit on a powder keg of employee discontent long after he was gone. He tried to tell them. A number of high-priced settlements — his included — merely allowed the DWP’s flaws to fester. Poor treatment of civil servants who thought working for a government agency meant more and not less protection of their rights is not the only harm done. The City Attorney’s Office has violated California public-records law in concealing outside legal costs and settlements, while the Mayor’s Office and the City Council have sat back and tolerated the DWP’s failed efforts to clean its own house at the public’s expense.

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