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Boeing says racism won't be tolerated. But will it be driven off the shop floor?

caption: A Boeing employee walks out of the Boeing Renton Factory after shift change on Monday, December 16, 2019, in Renton.
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A Boeing employee walks out of the Boeing Renton Factory after shift change on Monday, December 16, 2019, in Renton.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

A week ago, racist symbols appeared on a Black manager’s desk at the Boeing plant in Everett.

Boeing says it fires people who do that. But in the midst of widespread protests against racism and police violence, workers are saying Boeing needs to do more.

The incident at Everett carries echos of similar racist events in the recent past. A month ago at a Boeing plant in Pennsylvania it was a noose. A year ago at the Boeing 787 plant in South Carolina, also a noose.

The company has said racism won’t be tolerated and that the people involved in those incidents were fired.

But one former Boeing worker says incidents like this reveal that a subculture of hatred he encountered on the shop floor in Everett is alive and well.

“The subculture is still there that would allow someone to feel like they could do something like that and it would be okay,” the former Boeing worker said. He now works in the Puget Sound region for a Boeing supplier and asked that his name not be used to avoid problems with his new employer.

He left Boeing several years ago.

“It was very difficult to operate at Boeing,” he said. He said that as a Black machinist at Boeing, he found managers did not recognize him for his skills and leadership. They would fail to grasp that he was in charge of a job instead of a white colleague, he said.

There was also an undercurrent of hostility on the shop floor. The former Boeing worker said he often worked shoulder-to-shoulder in planes where people were peeling off their coveralls because of the heat inside the airframe. That meant white supremacist tattoos were revealed.

Avoiding such co-workers only made it harder to do his best work. The worker said he would often sit in his car after work and ask himself: “Have you had enough yet?”

“You have to make a decision: Can I continue to work in this environment or do I need to remove myself from this environment? And for me it reached a point where I decided that I just needed to remove myself from that environment.”

The former Boeing worker said he did not complain about his treatment or seek help because he saw what happened when others did so: The people responsible for the climate of hostility remained where they were. The complainants were the ones moved, and nothing changed.

“Doing that leads to a culmination of individuals looking at this and saying, ‘I’m not even going to make a complaint’ because it does no good,” he said.

KUOW asked Boeing to explain what actions it took following a complaint about racism in the workplace. Boeing was specifically asked if it moved complainants, but the company did not answer that question and did not provide details about its actions in such cases.

"It would not be fair or accurate to state or even imply that Boeing has more significant challenges than other large companies when it comes to racial issues," a Boeing spokesman said in an email. "That said, we are working hard and investing lots of time and resources into having the tough conversations internally and making improvements in every way we can."

After the incident at Everett last week, Boeing said it called the police and launched an internal investigation. In an email to employees, head of commercial airplanes Stan Deal urged workers to speak up when they see acts of intimidation at work.

“All of us must speak up every time when we see acts of intimidation or harassment at work and report the behavior to your manager, HR or Ethics,” Deal wrote. “I also encourage all of us to listen, learn and talk about the racial inequity and injustice faced by teammates of color.”

This Everett incident is the first Boeing incident to come to public attention in the wake of nationwide protests against police violence, following the killings of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers and Breonna Taylor by Louisville Metro Police officers.

As many across the country became increasingly vocal about racial injustices, corporate leaders trotted out statements denouncing systemic racism. Among them was a statement on June 1 from David Calhoun, Boeing’s CEO.

“You can be certain that when unacceptable acts of discrimination happen inside Boeing, the tolerance of this company for the people who engage in them will be precisely zero," Calhoun said. “There is no room in our company for them, and in fact in my short time as your CEO we have already terminated individuals for engaging in that behavior.”

“Let me make that absolutely clear: Harassment in any form, whether verbal, written, visual or physical, is not tolerated at Boeing.”

Calhoun’s statement disappointed many workers inside Boeing. Workers expressed their concerns both on social media and internally on Boeing's private social media service called InSite.

Dozens of pages from InSite were shared with KUOW. They show that some workers were sorry to see Calhoun didn’t admit the existence of systemic racism or even say the names of Black people killed by police.

They show discussions breaking out, some heated, about whether there should be mandatory racial diversity training at Boeing. Some people denied the existence of white privilege or systemic racism at Boeing and argued that the company had bigger problems to deal with.

Boeing says it wants people to express themselves freely and openly, as long as they are not being abusive or racist. Inside InSite, workers’ names are associated with what they say and they can be disciplined if they violate the company’s code of conduct.

Calhoun heard the criticism from workers that his statement on June 1 had not gone far enough. June 10, he published a message on “confronting racism.”

“What’s happening across the U.S. now goes beyond discrimination and harassment, beyond diversity and inclusion. What we’re seeing is the ongoing human cost of historic and persistent racial inequality in the United States,” he wrote, invoking the name of George Floyd.

“As a company and as human beings, we need to work even harder at doing something about it.”

Calhoun told workers that Boeing would “drive out” behaviors that violate company values. He said a Boeing employee who recently made a racist remark was no longer a Boeing employee.

And on InSite, a new Boeing executive, Niel Golightly, weighed in: "As a newcomer to Boeing and the Chief Communications Officer I'm encouraged that there are platforms like this one that allow for the kind of rich, open debate among employees that I see here. I'm personally learning a lot from it.

“I also see companies like ours across all industries taking a crash course in better ways to grapple with systemic racial injustice. That injustice has always existed in our society, but the last two weeks have brought it into sharper focus and generated a more urgent national conversation than I have seen in my lifetime. I hope that means we're actually at a turning point."

Golightly added that the discussion should be focused on what can be done — not just what is said.

The former Boeing worker, however, says meaningful change will only happen when the face of leadership at Boeing changes. He says the company cannot continue to be handed from white male to white male.

“A woman or a minority,” he said. “To make change happen in the way change needs to be happening, it has to come from somebody that has actually felt the sting of what they are trying to change.”

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