New race-bias issue: the workplace climate

Case of black airline mechanic in Los Angeles follows lead ofsex-harassment law.

Following in the legal footsteps left by sexual-harassment cases, a new kind of lawsuit is emerging to combat racial prejudice on the job.

As of yet, racial-harassment suits - which focus on workplace climate - are a tiny part of the overall caseload. But they are growing in number and are giving minorities a new recourse that some experts say will help eradicate more overt forms of racism.

In this setting, a case brought by a black airline mechanic against American Airlines is raising questions about how much responsibility corporations bear for the workplace environment created by their employees. The $10.5 million lawsuit alleges that American didn't do enough to halt racial harassment at its Los Angeles maintenance facility.

But more broadly, this case and others like it hint at shifting perceptions of appropriate demeanor. Increasingly, actions that were once accepted, or at least ignored by management and co-workers, are being condemned by the courts.

"There's a growing awareness that things that might have seemed innocuous at one time are no longer acceptable or appropriate," says Jodie Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California here.

Nooses and dartboards

For his part, Charles Walker says he endured racism at Los Angeles International Airport that was far from innocuous: rope nooses hanging in key parts of the building, a picture of him being used as a dart board, racist graffiti in a restroom.

"He was subjected to harassment and intimidation because of his race," says Ronald Wilson, one of Mr. Walker's lawyers, who is awaiting a trial date for the case. When Walker appealed to superiors to handle the problem, the company did little, conducting only "a shoddy investigation," he says.

American Airlines acknowledges that some of the racist incidents occurred, but it contests the charge that its investigations were slipshod. "We're not disputing the fact that there have been graffiti and offensive objects in the workplace," says Mark Slitt, a spokesman for American. "The issue is what we did about it."

American has a zero-tolerance policy on harassment of any kind, and Mr. Slitt says the company has begun sweeps of its facility here for graffiti.

But he concedes it's difficult to police all 100,000 workers in the firm. "We rely on our managers in our maintenance facility, and we're doing better at telling them what we expect."

Indeed, the novelty of these racial-harassment claims means that some organizations are only now learning what they must do to prevent them, say analysts.

In Boston earlier this year, an African-American police officer said he was being harassed when a colleague laid a noose over his motorcycle seat. After a review by the department, the commissioner called the incident an "ignorant prank," and the guilty officer was charged only with breaking three minor rules. The lawyer for the black police officer, though, said he planned to file federal charges.

The growth of cases like this, say legal experts, is almost inevitable. State courts that have led the way in laying out racial-harassment law - such as those in California and Michigan - have taken these cases as a logical follow-on to sexual harassment.

"There's no logical reason why the principles developed in sexual-harassment jurisprudence should not be applied to other groups," says Martin Wymer, a lawyer who has been involved in racial-harassment cases in a dozen states nationwide.

Most discrimination suits focus on workers' complaints about their job status, alleging that because of their race they weren't hired, weren't promoted, or were fired. Harassment suits, though, concern the broader workplace environment, which experts say can be so racially "corrosive" as to prevent a minority worker from carrying out his or her job.

Statistics on the trend are hard to track. Most states lump their racial charges into "discrimination" claims. But anecdotal information, and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's national data, indicate that the number of these cases has more than doubled to 9,908 since the beginning of the decade.

The increase "represents that more and more courts are recognizing racial harassment as a course of action," says Mr. Wymer.

And so are employees. As these sorts of cases become more widely known across the country, others will follow.

"It's a process of naming and describing the problem," says Professor Armour. "A person can go through a set of experiences and not know that they are in any way redressful."

Parallels to date-rape cases

He likens it to the explosion of date-rape claims in the 1990s. Although the crime existed for decades, it wasn't until the term "date rape" was coined and accepted as a legal concept that more women began filing lawsuits.

Increasingly, middle-age minorities like Walker are finding fresh recourse. Silent about what they see as workplace harassment, many are now starting to file lawsuits against companies where they've worked for years or even decades.

"These suits are most likely to be brought by people who entered the work force in the post-civil-rights era," says David Thomas, a professor of human-resource management at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "There was a feeling that all they needed to do was get in, work hard, defy stereotypes, and they would be accepted. At the very least, they thought that companies would not tolerate blatant harassment."

"What has essentially eroded is trust," he adds. "Trust in the system. Trust in the organization."

Ironically, say others, the emergence of this new legal redress comes even as racial harassment at companies has decreased.

Though problems are still widespread, says Wymer, "American businesses have become a lot more open and tolerant over the past 30 years." He credits the general elevation of society since the civil-rights movement, but also says allowing harassment is just "bad business." "Not only is it wrong," he adds, "but it interferes with people's ability to do their work."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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