Race Discrimination

It takes light skin and thin lips to be a good bank teller — at least according to a former personnel officer at the First Alabama Bank in Mobile. The officer’s notes, jotted down during interviews, say it all: One prospective teller was described as “an attractive white female, blond hair, blue eyes, teller-type appearance.” Another: “very large lips and hips, overweight, dark skin, black girl, her hair is longer than most, appearance is not good enough to meet the public.”

Eventually, officers with the U.S. Department of Labor noticed that few African American applicants ever made it to a position behind the bank’s counter. The labor department ordered the bank to pay $225,000 to 132 minority applicants and to hire 15 of them within 18 months.

These days, you’ll never see “blacks need not apply” in the help wanted ads. Indeed, many people assume racial discrimination on the job has largely gone the way of Jim Crow laws or “colored only” bus seats.

But a close look at factories and offices across the United States shows a different story. In 2009, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received nearly 33,600 complaints of racial discrimination, according to the most recent statistics available. Even in this age of lawsuits and anti-discrimination laws, there are still plenty of people who will put a noose on someone’s desk to make a point, says David Grinberg, a spokesman for the EEOC.

Hiring, firing, and harassment

Whether you’re a Blackfoot man in Montana or a black woman in Mobile, the color of your skin can make the difference between a job offer and a rejection. This type of discrimination is undoubtedly widespread — but it’s also hard to pin down. African-American men are more than twice as likely as white men to be unemployed, but how many of them missed out on jobs because of their race? Unless all personnel officers start recording their biases as blatantly as the Mobile Bank’s did, we’ll never know.

There are a thousand ways to earn a rejection letter, and the vast majority of them have nothing to do with race. Indeed, studies show that the employment gap shrinks when whites are compared with equally qualified minorities. But it doesn’t disappear. For instance, African American men with college degrees are 15 percent less likely than well-educated white men to work in a professional or managerial occupation. Similarly, among men with only a high school diploma, African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to end up in a service job.

Discrimination doesn’t necessarily stop when a minority gets hired. Many workers have had to endure racial jokes and put-downs from their colleagues. As an example, somebody at Appleton Papers in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, once scrawled “n—-r holiday” on the company calendar to mark Martin Luther King’s birthday. Such slurs are not just vicious — they’re against the law. As a result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, racial jokes and derogatory comments are illegal if they create an intimidating or hostile work environment.

Every year, more and more people put that law to the test. The EEOC received 50,000 harassment complaints in the 1990s, five times the total in the 1980s. And if preliminary statistics are any indication, the first decade of the new millennium will be another record-setting one for slurs, name-calling, and general racial hostility, Grinberg says.

Race can also keep employees stuck on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder. According to a lawsuit filed in 1999, black employees in the Coca-Cola Co. rarely made it past low-level jobs and earned on average $26,000 less than white employees. Another large company, Wonder Bread, had reportedly promoted just one out of 31 black employees at their San Francisco bakery and their distribution warehouses in Oakland and Santa Clara, California since 1997. Company officials allegedly refused to allow black workers to take the day off on Martin Luther King Day, but let white employees take days off to attend Giants’ games; black transit drivers were also refused entry to the company bathrooms and break rooms, while white employees were not. In addition, African-American employees reported that supervisors asked them not to hang out together in front of the plant on their breaks, apparently fearing that they’d be mistaken for a street gang.

Both companies paid a high price for discrimination. In November 2000, Coca-Cola agreed to pay more than $192.5 million to settle the lawsuit. The company also allowed a panel of outsiders to monitor future hiring practices. But that hasn’t entirely solved the problem. In November 2001, other workers filed similar race discrimination lawsuits against Coca-Cola alleging bias on the job.

In August 2000, a San Francisco jury awarded $120 million in damages to 17 current and former Wonder Bread employees — an award that a judge later cut to $24 million. That amount, he said, would still send a message to the parent corporation, Interstate Brands Corp., that its “pervasive despicable behavior” would not be tolerated.

Discrimination can do worse than hold people back: It may cost workers their job. A manufacturing plant in suburban Chicago fired nine workers for violating the company’s English-only rule, including one worker who had simply said “buenos dias,” the equivalent of “good morning.” In 2000, a court awarded the workers $192,500.

In some cases, stereotypical expectations can lead to discriminatory firings. “Employers in Montana often assume that Indians will be late more often,” says Ken Toole, a former Montana state senator and the director of the Montana Human Rights Network. “They watch for it more closely, they notice it more often, and they discipline it more severely.”

In some cases, race discrimination may be linked to current events. After September 11, the FBI reported a 1600 percent increase in the number of hate crimes committed between 2000 and 2001 involving people perceived to be Arab Americans, including those of other races. EEOC officials have also conducted workshops to prevent employees from harassing or otherwise engaging in workplace bias against Arab Americans.

Taking action

Racial discrimination on the job is illegal, and more and more victims are winning huge settlements in court. Yet many workers decide they have to simply endure it. Why? “The legal course of action is extremely complicated,” Toole says. “Many reasonable people take one look at it and decide to just walk away.”

Still, the battle against discrimination is worth fighting, Toole says. Workers who sense harassment on the job should start keeping a record of possible violations: slurs, jokes, unequal promotions, and so on. They should also look for other people who might notice the same problems. If other minorities at the workplace don’t see any discrimination, the case will be hard to prove. “Workers should think about the type of evidence it will take to win their case,” he says. “A feeling of uneasiness probably isn’t good enough.”

After gathering their information, workers who think they’ve been discriminated against should contact their local human rights bureau. A case manager will evaluate the evidence and suggest a course of action. If the case is strong enough, the worker can file a complaint with the EEOC. Even with the government on their side, the workers should expect a fight. “Some companies will stonewall and stonewall until there’s smoking-gun evidence,” Grinberg says.

Today’s discrimination cases are a lot like lotteries, Toole says. Some people win huge awards, but most people get nothing, either because they lose their case or because they decide not to press charges. In a closer-to-perfect world, he says, complaints would be easier to file and awards would be more realistic.

Employers can also work to eradicate bias in the workplace. In response to the September 11 attacks, EEOC officials have reminded businesses that they can discourage complaints by reminding all workers that making fun of or harassing a person’s race or religion is against the law.

They have also warned employers that banning workers from speaking other languages or wearing traditional dress on the job is also illegal.

The challenge

Race relations have undoubtedly come a long way in this country, but some of that progress is slipping, Grinberg says. “There’s a whole generation of workers who were born after the civil rights movement,” he says. “They have no idea why all of those [anti]discrimination laws were passed.”

Unfortunately, no matter what the law says, stereotypes, biases, and prejudices will remain. The challenge, Toole says, is to make sure these ugly thoughts don’t keep anyone from making a decent, dignified living. By that standard, we still have a long way to go.

Further Resources

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission http://www.eeoc.gov
1801 L Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20507
To contact your local EEOC field office, call 800-669-4000


U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Race-Based Charges, FY 1997 – FY 2009. http://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/statistics/enforcement/charges.cfm

OFCCP Egregrious Discrimination Cases, Employment Standards Administration/Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. www.dol.gov/ese/public/media/reports/ofccp/egregis.htm

Bendick, Marc, Jr. Adding Testing to the Nation’s Portfolio of Information on Employment Discrimination. Urban Institute.

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