Racial Harassment Still Infecting the Workplace

Eve Tahmincioglu, MSNBC, January 13, 2008

Many of us are marveling at how seemingly far our society has come given a man with an African American heritage is being considered a serious candidate for president. But in the workplace, attitudes toward many black workers are anything but inspiring.

Racial harassment is up to record levels in offices and factories across the country, and we’re not talking just the use of the “N” word. Racist graffiti, Klu Klux Klan propaganda and even physical threats including the display of hangman’s nooses are included among the intimidation tools.

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Racial harassment cases have more than doubled since the early 1990s, hitting an all-time high of 6,977 in 2007, according to EEOC data. (Blacks file nine out of 10 race harassment charges.) From fiscal 2000 to 2007, the EEOC received 51,000 racial harassment charge filings nationwide, already over the number received during the entire 1990s.

The big racial harassment payouts tend to get the headlines. Earlier this month, Lockheed Martin Corp. agreed to settle a case and pay $2.5 million to a black electrician who claimed he was harassed on a daily basis. He was threatened with lynching and once told: “If the South had won then this would be a better country.”

But cases like this with smaller monetary penalties are numerous, although they may not get as much press coverage.

According to an EEOC lawsuit involving AK Steel settled last February, workers were allegedly subjected to Nazi symbols, nooses, KKK videos, and graffiti with messages to murder blacks. In January 2007, EEOC settled the racial harassment suit against the company for $600,000.

And in July 2006, Home Depot paid a $125,000 settlement in a suit that alleged, according to the EEOC, “that a black former night crew lumberman/forklift operator was subjected to a racially hostile work environment because management condoned racial remarks by his supervisors who called him ‘black dog,’ ‘black boy.’” One manager even was charged with stating “that the Supreme Court had found black people to be ‘inferior.’”

These over-the-top acts at major corporations, probably have you scratching your head wondering what ever happened to diversity training, the endless videos on race-relations etiquette and human resource departments hell bent on weeding out such behavior.

Despite all these efforts that expanded greatly in the 1990s, hatred and ignorance apparently remain alive and well. There are a host of reasons racial harassment is escalating, according to labor experts, everything from a struggling economy that has caused major job insecurity to more people of color in the workplace, and even some blame violent video games.

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While we think of cases of harassment typically hit the rank and file, some legal experts have seen an uptick in black managers being harassed. Judy Broach, an attorney who represents workers, says she’s seen many black managers quit their jobs in disgust because of harassment.

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The influx of Gen Yers may also be contributing to the rise in reporting of such harassment, surmises Steve Pemberton, Chief Diversity Officer for Monster.com. “The younger generation isn’t as tolerant as the baby boomers,” he explains.

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Unfortunately, Bell adds [Myrtle Bell, an associate professor of management for University of Texas at Arlington], this type of bias against blacks isn’t going away anytime soon because it’s engrained in our society.

And even though Barack Obama is showing such potential as a presidential contender, the way people view him may be part of the problem. “People refer to him as a black candidate. He’s just as much white as he is black,” Bell points out. “That says a lot about race in America.”

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