Black History Month and Employment Protections
February is Black History Month. It was established to remember and honor the contributions and legacy of Black Americans across the United States, as well as to consider that systemic racism persists and to foster discussion on inspiring change. Issues of race, class, and employment have been intertwined throughout U.S. history. Progressive leaders like Fredrick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, A. Philip Randolph, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw unions as essential to achieving equality for Black workers. In fact, Randolph rallied around the slogan “Jobs and Freedom”, focusing on the economic dimension of equality. His work, alongside that of many other organizers, lawyers, and activists, led to foundational protections for minority groups in the workplace. However, despite some strides toward equity in the workplace, discrimination based on race, color, and nationality continues to impact thousands of workers each year.
Quick Statistics on Race, Color, and National Origin Discrimination in the Workplace
In 2021, the Gallup Center on Black Voices found that almost one in four Black employees in the U.S. report facing discrimination at work in the past year. In a follow-up question among those who perceived discrimination, 75% indicated that the discrimination they experienced was based on their race or ethnicity. This was significantly higher than White and Hispanic employees’ responses.
These devastating statistics highlight how critical it is to be aware of discrimination, laws prohibiting discrimination, and what to do when discrimination occurs.
Protections Against Discrimination
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits race, color, and national origin discrimination. It specifically prohibits a range of discriminatory conduct, including refusing to hire an applicant, terminating an employee, refusing to promote an employee, demoting an employee, discriminating regarding employee’s terms of employment, classifying employees in a way that either deprives the employees opportunities or adversely affects their status, making statements in job advertisements that indicate a preference or limitation based on race, color, or national origin, or refusing or failing to prevent or eliminate harassment.
Title VII also prohibits retaliation against an applicant or employee if they discrimination, filed a charge of race, color, or national origin discrimination, or participated in an investigation relating to a claim of race, color, or national origin discrimination.
Types of Discriminatory Action in the Workplace
Under Title VII, race, color, and national origin are each distinct protected characteristics. In the context of this law, race” refers to an individual’s immutable personal characteristics ascribed to a certain race, including skin color, hair texture, certain facial features, and other characteristics that predominately impacts race. “Color” may overlap with race, but it specifically refers to an individual’s skin color, skin tone, or complexion. “National origin” may overlap as well, but it specifically refers to “the country where a person was born, or, more broadly, the country from which his or her ancestors came.”
While these characteristics are not exhaustive, there are various pieces of legislation that aim to address additional characteristics. For example, the CROWN Act ensures protection against discrimination based on hair style and texture in the workplace. While Michigan hasn’t passed the CROWN Act yet, Ann Arbor, Ingham County, and Genesee County each have local laws prohibiting this form of discrimination.
Disparate Treatment vs. Disparate Impact Discrimination
Disparate treatment is intentional discrimination, while disparate impact is unintentional. Disparate impact is more complicated and may be harder to prove, though it is a pervasive form of discrimination in the workplace.
The first disparate impact case was considered soon after Title VII was enacted. Prior to the law taking effect, the Duke Power Company’s plant in North Carolina openly discriminated against Black employees. They could only be employed in the labor department, which paid significantly less than jobs in other departments. When the law was passed, instead of continuing overt segregation, the Company adopted a requirement that applicants for hire or transfer to any department except the labor department, must have a high school diploma or achieve a satisfactory score on two IQ tests. As a sidenote, the first IQ test was designed to prove the racist fallacy that White people are more intelligent than Black people. The Supreme Court held that this policy had a disparate impact, finding that “practices, procedures, or tests neutral on their face, and even neutral in terms of intent, cannot be maintained if they operate to ‘freeze’ the status quo of prior discriminatory employment practices.”. Because of the United States’ long history of providing inferior educational opportunities and resources to Black citizens, the policy did not allow equal opportunity.
What to do if You’ve Faced Racial Discrimination in the Workplace
If you’ve faced discrimination because of your race in the workplace, we encourage you to call us and speak to us confidentially about what’s happening. We’ll help you understand your rights, and work tirelessly to make things right.