In the News…

Enforcing equality: Kansas City continues to fight for civil rights

January 18


The Kansas City Star

Mickey Dean, Retired KS Civil Rights DivisionAt first, Robert and Carrie Cleveland loved their Northland mobile home. 

But that was before the rude remarks, the slashed tires and the trampled flowers, before someone planted a “for sale” sign in their yard, before their two sons’ bicycles disappeared, before a resident knocked on their door and — using the worst expletive — said their sons no longer should use the community pool.

Desperate, the Clevelands — he an African-American Army veteran and she a stay-at-home mom of Native American, Irish and German descent — sought help through a toll-free federal housing complaint telephone number they found online.

The intake specialist routed the Clevelands closer to home: City Hall.

Representatives of Kansas City’s Civil Rights Enforcement Division responded using a four-page civil rights ordinance, a document that turns 50 years old this April.

In 1964, Kansas City voters narrowly approved the implementation of the measure — then known as the public accommodations ordinance — at a time when some bars and restaurants still didn’t want to serve African-Americans.

In the half century since, protections not likely imagined back then have been added to the ordinance. Today it not only prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex, national origin and ancestry, but on disability, age, sexual orientation and gender identity.

In recent years, Kansas City civil rights investigators have intervened to help disabled drivers get parking spaces closer to the entrance of their condominiums, protect tenants from the unwanted sexual advances of a landlord, strike down dress code regulations thought to discourage African-American and Hispanic residents from patronizing a downtown entertainment district, and remove a section from city employment applications demanding that job seekers list past criminal convictions.

The division’s six staff members have little downtime. From January 2013 through last week, they had looked into 158 employment complaints, 58 housing cases and 11 public accommodations issues.

Intake specialists determine whether a caller fits a “protected category.” Cases, once opened, must be documented. If a caller complains of discrimination based on a disability, that disability must be verified.

A recent advertising campaign, “Discrimination: Report It! Don’t Ignore It,” prompted an increase in calls. Now the office receives up to 40 inquiries per month, with some calls coming from Lee’s Summit, Leavenworth and elsewhere. Those individuals are referred to the closest appropriate agency.

“Based on human nature, there will always be a need for civil rights investigators,” said Phillip Yelder, director of the city’s Human Relations Department, including the civil rights division.

These days, discrimination can be far more covert than in 1964.

“Some people just find a way around the rules,” said Mickey Dean, a lawyer who led the division for 20 years before retiring in December. “You just don’t see the overt stuff they fought against in 1964.”

Then again, there’s the discrimination the Clevelands described.

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