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In shadow of racism, a family fights back

Jason Booker was due back on the job in the Hernando County Utilities Department on Monday.

It couldn't have been the kind of return the 20-year-old was looking forward to.

Booker was given paid time off after he accused co-workers of racial harassment, racial insults and horseplay involving a noose.

County officials are still sifting through the allegations. Booker, who has been working for the department for less than a year, has himself been accused of making racial comments.

Where were the supervisors when all this was going on?

Hernando County has long struggled to shake off its ugly legacy of racial hostility toward blacks and other minorities. Most residents will tell you that things have improved. But if these allegations are true, it seems that some people have not gotten the message. It is also clear that the guys with the noose picked on the wrong guy.

A former state championship wrestler and star football player at Springstead High, Booker is of mixed racial heritage: His father is black and his mother, Martha Rodriguez, is Hispanic.

His grandmother, Jeanette Soto, is an Indiana Hoosier who recently retired from the county after more than two decades. She was around when the county hired diversity consultant Walter Dry to train employees to reduce incidents of racial and sexual harassment on the job.

She couldn't ignore what was happening to her grandson. Neither could Booker's mom, who sounded the alarm.

In a community where people of color learn to grin and bear racial insensitivity and unfairness, the family understands the value of standing on principle. While a black co-worker quit in the face of racial harassment, Booker had to stay and fight.

In the late 1990s, Booker's uncle, Chris Soto, encountered a similar problem when he was passed over for a promotion, which he felt went to a less-qualified co-worker.

That was the way things worked under Hernando's good old boy system. Soto refused to take no for an answer. He filed a grievance with the county, but county officials refused him a hearing. Who was he to complain? After all, most people who are passed over for jobs either keep quiet or quit.

Instead, Soto, a longtime assistant wrestling coach at Springstead High, fought back.

He sued the county, demanding that Hernando follow its own grievance procedures. And when a circuit court judge backed the county, Soto appealed to a higher court, which ruled in his favor.

Although he got his grievance hearing, he didn't get the promotion. But he proved his point.

By the way, Soto still works with the Utilities Department. As a measure of his vindication, the Hernando County Commission voted to pay Soto's $12,000 legal bill.

That was a small price to pay for fairness.

If these latest racial allegations are proved true, it will cost Hernando County much more.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at askerritt@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.

In shadow of racism, a family fights back 04/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 17, 2008 10:32am]
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