1. Archive

Affirmative action labeling under fire

Until two weeks ago, Robert J. Guidara was known simply as a highly praised sergeant with the Tampa Police Department and a leading candidate for promotion.

That was before a list of candidates for lieutenant was released June 7 and somebody noticed that Guidara, who was born in Rome to Italian parents, was listed as Hispanic. In fact, he is the highest-ranking Hispanic on the list, and thus eligible for an affirmative action promotion.

The implication that an officer might unfairly have claimed minority status caused a furor at a department where two years of budget cutbacks have kept promotions and new hires to a minimum.

Guidara and a handful of others whose ethnicity has been questioned staunchly deny they have taken advantage of the system.

"I don't need to ride the shirttail of some federal policy to get promoted," said Guidara, a 15-year veteran who his chief calls "one of the best sergeants in the department."

Guidara's predicament, though a first in Tampa, is similar to other cases across the United States.

Two years ago in San Francisco, Hispanic firefighters targeted fellow employees whom they labeled fakes, leading to a bitter public debate and ultimately a clarification of the city's civil service rules. In 1988, two white Irish-American twins were fired from the Boston Fire Department when it was learned they had lied about being black.

"With a limited number of opportunities and stronger competition, the preference issue becomes a greater problem," said Hubert Williams, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Police Foundation.

Ethnicity at issue

Phil Goldman, an enforcement supervisor with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Tampa, is exasperated by the number of calls he has received recently. Everyone wants to know how his agency, which keeps national statistics on minority employment, defines ethnic origin _ Hispanic in particular.

"I don't have any idea why all of a sudden this is becoming an issue. This is not something we have generated," he said late last week.

Goldman won't speculate about how his agency interprets the definition. He won't say if he thinks it's too broad, and said he doesn't understand what all the fuss is about.

He will only read the definition:

"The concept of race does not denote clear-cut scientific definitions of anthropological origins An employee may be included in the group to which he or she appears to belong, identifies with, or is regarded in the community as belonging."

"The category Hispanic: All persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race."

While this may not stir debate within EEOC walls, it does outside, where few people give the same interpretation. The term "Hispanic" crosses racial lines, so some people wonder if it is fair to treat a white European of Spanish descent the same as a member of a group such as a dark-skinned Mexican immigrants.

Some say Portuguese are Hispanic, while others disagree. Some wonder how many generations removed one can be from a Spanish culture and still qualify.

Thom Gonzalez, Tampa's labor attorney and someone who has spent a lot of time pondering the subject, calls the definition preposterously broad.

"I could claim to be a minority because my family came here from Spain four generations ago. And that allows me to get protection (under affirmative action) that the law never intended," he said.

"Those statutes were always created to help people who suffered real discrimination, and that was always a question of culture rather than names," Gonzalez said.

Consensus evasive

Even like-minded people can disagree.

In 1987 and 1988, when the Tampa Police Department was in the midst of a recruiting drive, the personnel offices of both the city and the department read the EEOC rule and came to this conclusion: If a woman with no Hispanic blood marries a Hispanic man and takes his name, then she can claim herself to be Hispanic.

It happened to Helena Rhodes, who joined the department in July 1986. A year later, she married a Hispanic man and changed her name to Rodriguez.

Within a month, she filed a personal data form indicating she had changed her ethnic classification from white to "Spanish-surnamed," the precursor of the Hispanic designation.

She did so at the request of the department's personnel office.

"It had been suggested that some people were not claiming their Hispanic heritage," said Joseph Walker, the manager of the personnel bureau. "We've always been concerned about trying to mirror the community that we serve."

That is the goal of Tampa Police Chief Eduardo Gonzalez. But when he arrived from the Metro-Dade Police Department and discovered that a change of name was being used to identify Hispanics, he drew the line.

He sent out a questionnaire to 13 sworn officers asking them to verify their ethnicity. Two women, including Rodriguez, changed back to white.

Walker said it is unfair to suggest the department was cooking its numbers to appear more ethnically balanced. The effort to accurately reflect the number of Hispanics in the department was made in good faith, he said.

However, Rodriguez still is listed as a Hispanic female, which Walker says is an administrative oversight.

Like Rodriguez's case, Guidara's reclassification went unnoticed when he did it in 1988. Guidara is married to a Hispanic and his children speak some Spanish, officials said.

But Guidara, unlike Rodriguez, has become a flash point for the debate over ethnic heritage and the way affirmative action works at the police department.

There is little doubt that Guidara's case has come to the forefront because of the hotly contested promotion he is seeking; 35 people are eligible for two lieutenant positions and Chief Gonzalez has said he will not make a decision soon.

Meanwhile, Guidara said his carefully tended career is being ruined.

"I'm being victimized, and my integrity is being questioned," Guidara said last week. "I was solicited repeatedly to change my classification. As a result I'm sitting under scrutiny when it should be the department that is being scrutinized."

Who should have to justify their actions _ the employee or the employer _ is at the heart of the issue.

As of Friday, the city has decided to firmly straddle the fence.

According to labor attorney Gonzalez, employees can declare any affiliation they want, "regardless of how stupid it may seem."

"But when it comes to receiving a benefit (from the ethnic designation) then some documentation may be required," Gonzalez said.

For the time being, Guidara's word is not in question. But the issue no doubt will resurface when it becomes necessary to promote a Hispanic male to lieutenant, which may not be for a while since Hispanics already are sufficiently represented at that rank.

Chief Gonzalez said he has no intention of wavering from his goal to mirror the ethnic makeup of Tampa in about 800 blue uniforms. He said everyone _ officers and community alike _ benefits when the police department doesn't resemble "an occupational army."

But Gonzalez is confounded by the looseness of the EEOC's definition, and he is aware, though not fearful, of a time when the department and the officers will meet in court to argue ethnic heritage.

"We're trying to do the right thing. We'll go to court if we have to," Chief Gonzalez said. "But my only option to keep a lawsuit from happening is to stop doing affirmative action, and I don't have any intention of doing that unless I'm ordered to by a court."

Calm after the storm

San Francisco's tumultuous era of ethnic unmasking seems to have passed. The outrageous examples of fraudulent claims of Hispanic heritage in the city's fire department have slipped from the headlines.

Now it has fallen to people like Dennis Caines, who works in the EEOC division of the Civil Service Commission, to routinely pass judgment on the ethnicity of job candidates.

From the contentiousness of the early decade have come guidelines that Caines and his fellow workers use to supplement the EEOC definition. Under the city's rules, Caines can ask a prospective employee to provide documentation such as a birth certificate or military or school records. He even can ask them for a face-to-face interview.

It is important work because Caines firmly believes that affirmative action jobs "belong to people who have historically been discriminated against," not people who are a minority in name only.

It is also difficult work.

"This is an awful job. I hate to make these decisions," Caines said in a telephone interview from his office. "This one kid who was applying as a Hispanic started to cry, and I started crying with him. I think he knew I was leaning toward rejecting his claim."