A black diversity expert who was once injured in an attack by white supremacists was forced to apologize to his city of Phoenix subordinates last year for repeating a racial slur during a discussion about respect in the workplace.
Meeting attendees complained that Don Logan, the director of Phoenix's Equal Opportunity Department, insensitively and repeatedly used the term "wetback" and other derogatory language during the meeting while abbreviating other slurs, causing the city to launch an inquiry, records that Phoenix New Times obtained via public records request show.
It all began when Logan called a staff meeting at 2 p.m. on October 24, 2018, and about 20 employees gathered in a conference room on the 15th floor of City Hall.
According to more than a dozen written statements from attendees, people began discussing cases they were working on. The conversation turned to the city's PHXRespect campaign — which the city says is about creating "an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and respected" — and the use of racial slurs in the workplace.
Phoenix employees are still using "the N-word, B-word, C-word, and wetback," Logan said, according to one person's recollection, which other statements corroborated. The slur "wetback" originally referred to Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande, but its contemptuous usage has expanded to include Hispanics and Latinos, or immigrant laborers, at large.
Attendees blanched. Logan, the head of the city department responsible for cracking down on workplace discrimination, had just steered clear of saying several offensive terms outright before casually using another.
Then, Logan used the derogatory term again, according to one witness statement.
"Since this was the second time he mentioned it I was extremely offended," that person wrote. The person stayed seated, but raised both hands and told Logan, "I find it extremely offensive and inappropriate that the word 'Wetback,' is being used over again and itis [sic] just as offensive [as] the full 'N Word.'"
Other statements corroborated that version of events.
At least one other employee spoke up and repeated the message: "Using that word is highly offensive and just as offensive as using the 'N' word."
Logan, who is black, turned to that employee with a stern rebuke.
"No it's not!" he said, one statement recounted. The employee reiterated the message. "Don, yes it is. To me it is the same," someone else remembered that person saying.
Logan pushed back again: "It depends on who you ask!"
Eight years later, one white supremacist was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the act, although jurors decided he was not guilty of a hate crime. His identical twin brother was acquitted of the lone conspiracy charge against him.
In 2015, Phoenix hired Logan as equal opportunity director, with City Manager Ed Zuercher citing Logan's experience with diversity training and in "bringing communities together."
'I Truly Do Hope That Something Is Done About This Matter'
According to multiple statements, Logan then used the term two or three more times, even as some people appeared "shocked and not quite sure what to do or say since it was the director of the Equal Opportunity Department using those terms."
One employee estimated that Logan used the slur at least four times in the meeting — after people told him it was generally offensive and that they were personally affronted by it. Several statements also said that, in the same meeting and context, Logan used the terms "Redskins" and "drunken Indians."
The room erupted, but eventually, people fell quiet, and not everyone spoke up. Several witnesses attributed their silence to Logan's powerful position as director of the EOD and their fear of retaliation, especially after seeing his response to employees who spoke up. A few rebuked themselves in their statements.
"Since then, I have felt extreme regret for not having spoke up for myself or my fellow peers who were visibly shaken by the use of this word by OUR DIRECTOR," one person wrote. "The feeling of powerlessness was paralyzing and the anger I felt was excruciating."
"It is beyond shameful that we are exposed to such discriminatory views by an individual who considers himself an advocate against discrimination," that person added, adding that more than half of the department's employees were of Hispanic or Latino heritage.
"I truly do hope that something is done about this matter because this type of behavior is completely unacceptable from ANYONE in a workplace, much less in a government organization that prides itself on protecting others from discrimination," they concluded.
Several statements also called attention to a separate problem. In opening the meeting, those statements said, Logan named an employee who was taking leave through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act — a violation of employee privacy. One recollection also said Logan told everyone that the department had made accommodations for an employee who was breastfeeding — another second privacy violation.
After the meeting, someone complained about the racial slurs, and the Human Resources Department launched in an inquiry. In early November, Angie Varela, an HR officer, solicited "a detailed statement" from over a dozen attendees recounting what happened during the meeting on the afternoon of October 24, 2018.
Ultimately, the city took action, as all good bureaucracies do, by holding a meeting.
"It was decided that the best course of action would be to facilitate a discussion with the group regarding what occurred to resolve any misunderstandings and for Don to have an opportunity to clarify his intent and apologize for offending anyone," Phoenix spokesperson Julie Watters wrote in a statement to New Times.
At the meeting, "HR staff facilitated a discussion on the PHXRespect initiative and how it relates to the October staff meeting discussion," Watters wrote. "Following that discussion, Don apologized to the staff and the matter was considered resolved," she added.
In response to questions about Logan's alleged violations of employee privacy, which multiple people reported in writing, city spokesperson Matt Heil said, "Mr. Logan does not recall these comments and would not discuss an employee's FMLA status." No disciplinary action was taken.
To Be, or Not to Be (Offended)
Logan's words and actions deeply shook the majority of the meeting's attendees, who gave HR statements covering a full page or more. Out of 14 statements submitted to HR, then redacted and released to New Times, nine described being personally offended or finding the incident inappropriate. One witness was neutral, and the remaining four couldn't really see the problem.
"Director Logan used the terms 'N-word' and 'Wet-back' multiple times expressing how he found the use of this language to be unacceptable," one person wrote. "I did not find the comments to be offensive because they were used in the context of a discussion about an investigation," and were not directed at anyone in particular, that person added.
One person confessed to have hardly been paying attention. "Honestly, I had really zoned out by that part of the meeting and wasn't listening closely so I cannot independently speak regarding that issue," that person wrote.
In a written response to New Times, Logan said that use of racial epithets came "in the context of a discussion was having about the city's new PHXRespect campaign, that encourages employees to treat their coworkers and the public with respect, inclusion, civility, and kindness."
Although some employees were offended by his "candor," he wrote, "I never intended to offend anyone." Logan said he had apologized to the entire department, "making it known that my intent was not to offend."
Through a spokesperson, Logan declined an interview request from New Times to answer follow-up questions.
Emails show that at least three employees felt Logan had not apologized in good faith.
In a note sent to Varela, the HR officer, on February 1, another HR employee said that they had recently encountered three EOD employees, all of whom "made similar comments about the low morale in their department and their frustration with their director after he was supposed to apologize for something that happened in a previous meeting."
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Those employees told the HR employee that Logan, rather than showing accountability for his actions, used the passive voice and said things like, "If some of you got offended, I am sorry."
Those employees — who, the HR employee noted, investigate incidents of this very nature in their daily jobs — felt that Logan had not faced any real consequences for his actions, and that they had been "disrespected and ignored."
"They believe that the city did not consider the damage of his words, how the group felt, and how the standards that apply to everyone else did not apply to this situation," the HR employee concluded.
Asked whether the city had taken action in response to the concerns raised in February, Heil offered a nonresponse: "Mr. Logan’s apology at the time was sincere, and his comments were part of an ongoing discussion of PHXRespect training, and how staff handles and addresses such issues when they arise."