Racial Unrest March Signs Progress at U.S. Mint

WASHINGTON — The United States Mint celebrated a milestone this month by announcing the first shipment of a new batch of quarters featuring writer and poet Maya Angelou, the first black woman to be portrayed on the 25 cent piece.

The announcement came weeks after President Biden said he would appoint Ventris C. Gibson to head the Mint, where, if confirmed, she would be its first black director.

But beneath the public signs of social progress lurks an agency that has battled racial tensions for years, with black employees saying they feel threatened, marginalized and professionally disadvantaged. While instances of racism at the Mint have surfaced in previous years, a new internal report that has been reviewed by The New York Times depicts an institution in turmoil over allegations of racist behavior.

A draft of the report, commissioned by the Mint Last year and produced by an independent human resources consulting firm, determined that the agency, which is part of the Treasury Department, had a “culture problem” and that staff members felt a “psychological lack of safety”. The report describes a workplace with “implicit biases” and “microaggressions” towards minorities.

Participants in a survey conducted by the consulting firm, which included more than 200 staff, senior managers and executives, said race was a divisive issue at the Mint. Many people at the agency expressed concern that hiring and promotions for minorities were not being treated fairly and said they feared retaliation for filing formal complaints.

In company interviews cited in the report, some Mint officials appeared to dismiss racial concerns. Comments from managers included that “we need a model minority” and that “if we put a minority as deputy manager of the US Mint, minorities will see that we are neither racist nor sexist”.

The company, TI Verbatim Consulting, said in the report that its findings “point to potential root causes of the racial divide” at the Mint. The report cited outdated policies, cliques, ambiguous promotional practices and the perception of patronage. Although some Mint staff described a positive environment, others said there had been a noticeable “downward spiral” in recent years amid rising racial tensions and overt acts of discrimination.

“The workforce does not feel the organization is living up to its values,” the report said.

Concerns about a culture of discrimination at the Mint drew national attention in 2017 after a white worker at a Philadelphia facility tied a rope used to seal bags of coins into a noose and left it at the workstation of a black colleague. In a 2020 letter to then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Mint staffers said another noose had surfaced and the word N had been written on the walls of the restrooms. They also said a white Mint official referred to a black agency executive as a “zookeeper” in an instant messaging conversation.

The allegations were forwarded to Treasury Department Inspector General Richard K. Delmar. He found no evidence of racial animosity surrounding the Philadelphia noose incident, but his investigation into other allegations is still ongoing. Mr. Delmar declined to comment on the ongoing review.

The day after the noose was discovered, the employee in question was removed from his post. He challenged his dismissal to the US Merit Systems Protection Board, which reviews cases of government employees who challenge their dismissal, and said his job involved tying knots. The Mint later agreed to a settlement with the employee after the Department of Justice declined to take action; a Mint spokesperson said the settlement was reached in an effort to end the dispute and ensure the employee would not be reinstated.

The revelations of racial unrest come as the Mint is at a potential turning point. Mr Biden has made racial equity a centerpiece of his platform and he announced in December that he would appoint Ms Gibson as the agency’s director. She is currently deputy director of the Mint and heads the agency on an interim basis.

Ms. Gibson, who must be confirmed by the Senate, is committed to improving the Mint’s culture. Last month, she led a diversity briefing at a senior executives meeting, and she plans to create new career development programs to help make the promotion process more transparent.

“Our workforce comes from diverse backgrounds, and I am committed to ensuring that we respect, honor and leverage that diversity,” Ms. Gibson said in a statement. “We need to ensure that there are no barriers to the success and advancement of any Mint employee.

She added: “We at the senior management level must make a concerted effort to always treat our employees with fairness and integrity, and to restore confidence in these basic tenets of good leadership and exemplify genuine care for labor”.

Credit…Treasury Department

But there are lingering concerns among Mint staff about their commitment and ability to bring about change at an organization where cultural issues have festered for so long.

Mint staff members are concerned that symbols of change may not necessarily lead to tangible cultural change at the 1,600-person agency, which was created by the Mint Act of 1792. This includes the decision to put Ms. Angelou on watch.

“It’s a distraction,” said Rhonda Sapp, the president of the Mint Workers’ Union, who questioned the value of putting Ms Angelou on a coin “when you mistreat people, some of whom are people of color, who make coins.”

Ms Sapp, who said she had not seen the consultancy firm’s report, said changing the agency’s culture would require more sweeping changes within the Mint’s leadership.

“What good is having the first black female director, if confirmed, when you have all these people who have these behaviors and mindsets that undermine her at every turn?” Ms. Sapp asked.

Others are more optimistic about Ms. Gibson’s ability to foster a culture of inclusion.

“Ventris brings years of human resources experience in large organizations,” said Rosie Rios, who served as United States Treasurer during the Obama administration. “I’m sure she will do a good job with the Mint.”

The report credited the Mint’s management for commissioning the assessment of its culture and allowing respondents to speak freely about the agency. He said that “there is a tremendous opportunity for real change”.

Before Mr. Biden announced his appointment as head of the Mint, Ms. Gibson was named deputy director of the agency in October. At the time, Wally Adeyemo, the deputy treasury secretary, hailed his selection as a sign of progress.

“His historic appointment reflects our continued commitment to building a skilled and diverse workforce at the Treasury and in its offices that will serve the American people well,” he said.

La Monnaie was historically a pioneer of diversity, but did not always prioritize healthy working conditions. In 1795, she became the first federal agency to employ women when she began hiring them to work in the so-called adjustment room, a poorly ventilated space where they weighed and graded blank coins.

In recent years, bringing diversity to the imagery of U.S. coins has been a priority for the Mint. The bipartisan Circulating Collectibles Overhaul Act of 2020, which was signed into law by President Donald J. Trump the week before he left office, initiated the addition of notable women, such as Ms. Angelou, by quarter until in 2025.

The findings of the report have not yet been made public. They are expected to be shared more widely among Mint staff later this month, Ms Gibson said in her statement.

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