Two Conflicting Stories on Race and a Utah DOT Firing

Two Conflicting Stories on Race and a Utah DOT Firing


The Utah Department of Transportation has one less employee as of earlier this month. In the wake of Debra Charleston’s departure, more than a few questions have been raised about her absence.

Charleston, an African-American and the former civil rights manager for UDOT, shared with local media that she was fired for her role in organizing a recent event featuring U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. He appeared at the Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Commission luncheon earlier this month.

The Utah DOT and Charleston’s boss, Bryan Adams, maintain that they let her go for performance reasons, most specifically her lack of technical skills for the job. Charleston says that she was hired for her management skills and not the technical requirements.

At first thought, it would be easy to say that the Utah state government is lacking in diversity (the whole state is) and Charleston could have become a target in her role. But, the DOT says they can prove the performance issue part. A spokesperson for the DOT says Adams met with Charleston several times recently to discuss her lacking performance.

On the other hand, Charleston says that she was let go because she was the only Black employee in the department. Adams’s reaction was stern, Charleston claims, when he found out she was in charge of the luncheon. Charleston maintains the argument despite the fact that the DOT says Adams hired her himself back in July.

“I’m offended, and I’m appalled. Here we are in 2012. You should be judged by the content of your character. And I’m being judged by the color of my skin,” Charleston said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

However, the MLK event had been a part of Charleston’s work for the past three years and Adams approved time off she needed to handle it. She served as the state’s director of Black affairs in her former position and the luncheon carried over to her UDOT.

For some, it’s hard to tell where the truth falls in between these stories.

As an African American observer, it’s easy to look at work situations through the minority lens. Plenty of Black people have played the “odd (wo)man out” in professional situations. People don’t want to believe that this type of discrimination still exists. But, it does.

At the same time, managing the expectations of leaders is a requirement in any work role. Knowing where you stand on a project or in a larger career role on a consistent basis is vital to success. The fewer the surprises, the better.

It’s hard to believe that anyone in a high-profile state position could take such a public stance against an MLK luncheon while granting time off to plan it. It should be interesting to see how this drama plays out and where the truth falls in all of the accusations on each side.