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African-Americans Count for Little at the World Bank

Barrington M. Salmon | 2/12/2014, 3 p.m.
The World Bank (Courtesy photo)

Phyllis Muhammad’s official and unofficial responsibilities at the World Bank gave her a bird’s eye view of the steady and significant patterns of racism and discrimination perpetrated at the institution.

On a continuum of racism and discrimination, African-Americans sit at the absolute bottom of the totem pole. Bank staff and management have harried, bullied, disrespected and marginalized black employees and consultants, with African-Americans bearing the brunt of the abuse.

Blacks are routinely placed in the Africa Region and such is the level of discrimination and racism, that a two-block stretch near the World Bank headquarters at 1818 K Street NW. is referred to by black Bank employees as “Apartheid Avenue.” Why? Because white World Bank managers operate in the Bank’s main complex, while black employees proceed to the “J” Building across the road, both buildings separated by 18th Street.

During her 12 years at the World Bank, Muhammad, an African-American and a former staff relations officer, said a number of employees came to her seeking advice and guidance. Muhammad, who earned a law degree from Harvard Law School, said she moved naturally to advising black employees enmeshed in a quagmire of racism and discrimination.

“People came to me confidentially and I saw somewhat of a pattern but I didn’t see it until I was put in the position of having to get out of my unit,” said Muhammad during a recent interview. “I intimidated my manager. The Bank helped me finish law school and people were kind of miffed. The manager started taking steps for me to not get a good evaluation and impede my movement forward, so I left the unit because I wasn’t willing to put in the energy [to fight for my job].”

“I got a developmental assignment as a staff relations officer and this put me in contact with even more people of different ages, races and levels. I saw patterns with African-Americans who were very fearful of doing anything formally. People were mistreating them such as giving them unfair evaluations, and were criticized for their work without an opportunity to respond.”

Muhammad said other employees were given the opportunity to take certain courses, Africans and African-Americans often were not. On the other hand, Asians and whites have virtually no limits on their ability to advance, but blacks are relegated to the lower rungs of the organization, if they can get into the World Bank at all.

“Africans in the professional class came to me as well. They said their views were not heard, that they were passed over and that others were given credit for their work,” she said. “They were too high up to do anything formally.”

Muhammad, co-chair of Justice for Blacks, an organization created to combat racism at the Bank, said the racism that is part of the norm at the World Bank runs deep. For decades, she said, Bank managers and officials have had free rein in continuing deeply entrenched bias against black people in the Bank’s policies, affecting everything from equity, fairness, human rights policies and international development. What is particularly disturbing, she said, is the by-product is an institution that fosters and encourages a structural and cultural bias against blacks that has muted African voices in the bank’s major decision making processes and marginalized and dehumanized black employees for decades.

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