Racial harassment rises in a ruder America

A white foreman at a Charlotte, N.C., construction firm intimidating black workers with a noose.

A sign in an Atlanta aerospace firm saying "Go back to Africa."

A Florida citrus company where some black workers are called "boy" and subjected to racial epithets.

Only a few years after the peak of "political correctness," allegations like these are surfacing in record numbers as more minorities file suit against their employers, claiming that they are being harassed at work - just because of race.

Using the legal principle established in sexual-harassment cases, these types of lawsuits have more than doubled during the past decade to 6,550 this year. Here in the Raleigh area, for example, the number has jumped from 16 to 62 in the past four years.

Some analysts say the trend is evidence that America is just getting ruder, and young people - with few connections to the Civil Rights movement - are the worst perpetrators. Others suggest that "know your rights" campaigns are leading minorities nationwide to be more assertive.

Whatever the case, the spike in racial-harassment lawsuits is evidence that many immigrants and African-Americans are feeling secure enough in their jobs to speak out against what they see as inappropriate and sometimes hateful behavior. Moreover, it indicates America's growing sensitivity to more-subtle issues of race and fairness.

"We're really seeing these complaints coming coast to coast, from border to border," says David Grinberg, spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). "A lot of people think the situation is getting better, but we're still seeing a lot of egregious harassment in the workplace."

Working environment

Racial harassment is distinct from racial discrimination in that harassment deals with issues of workplace environment, while discrimination deals with topics such as promotion, pay, and equity. Often, though, harassment can be a major part of discrimination settlements.

Coca-Cola, for instance, last month settled a case that involved discrimination and harassment for $192 million - twice what the US spent on aid to Mozambique.

Yet harassment claims are also growing on their own, as more workers refuse to put up with boorish or racist acts.

"In the past decade, we've seen a lot of focus on conflict," says Joe Doherty, deputy director of the Charlotte EEOC office. "There was that awful murder in Texas, and all the controversy around the Confederate flag. All these things tend to focus issues where there's conflict and tension - and bring them to the surface."

As a black man, Chico Scott has always been interested in race relations. The worst racial insult ever aimed at him occurred when a white woman crossed the street rather than walk near him on a sidewalk.

But perched behind his beverage stand in Raleigh-Durham Airport, Mr. Scott comments on the crowds that pass by with the air of an amateur sociologist. He says racism is no worse today than it was 10 years ago. The freedom that minorities feel to claim their civil rights, though, is at a 30-year high, he feels.

"People are probably claiming more protection under the law than they ever did under [Presidents] Reagan, Ford, and Nixon," says Scott. "You'd have to go back to [President] Johnson for there to be a time where people felt more comfortable about claiming harassment. And now, with this lawyer-driven society, if you can sue somebody for anything, go for the money."

Indeed, a few observers say the rise in racial-harassment claims may be misleading, and tinged by a desire - by some Americans - to sue first and ask questions later.

"I would be stunned if racial harassment has gone up," says David Howard of Elk Grove, Calif., a former FBI agent who now lectures on how to avoid workplace conflicts. "In fact, you're seeing a neat thing: America is the kind of country that, when we see a wrong, we try to make it right, and we'll even try to change a culture, like they did in the South.

"What we should be doing is patting ourselves on the back for doing such a fantastic job with this," he says.

Blue-collar jobs

Fresh evidence indicates that the new rash of on-the-job complaints comes largely from construction sites and blue-collar workplaces, says Mr. Grinberg. The allegations against Lockheed Martin in Atlanta and SunAg citrus in Florida bear that out.

But some cases, lawyers suggest, may simply be the result of confusion. Phil Van Hoy, an attorney representing Crowder Construction, the Charlotte building firm, says the noose in question was a rigging used to teach workers about maneuvering cranes - and was not tied with a hangman's knot.

Though the South is often perceived as the hotbed of racial harassment, Mr. Van Hoy says, in fact, ethnic and racial jokes are shunned more here than in many other parts of the country because of the sensitivity to the past.

This new sensitivity, however, hasn't necessarily filtered down to all levels and regions of American business. Especially in small towns, workers may still be blacklisted for complaining, and "hideously immoral" behavior is still prevalent, says EEOC Chairwoman Ida Castro.

And despite obvious civil rights gains since the 1950s, many workers still keep quiet. "If you complain, at the very best you're going to lose your job," says Gail Wolfe, a workplace psychologist in Chicago. "The burden is still really on the employee, and in most cases that means they'd rather put up with [the harassment]."

For his part, Lionel Streeter, a construction worker taking a break from building a new parking deck near Raleigh's Fayetteville Street Mall, sounds a hopeful note.

He says racial harassment may indeed be a diminishing issue even in today's roughneck workplaces.

"I've never had a white guy say anything threatening to me," says Mr. Streeter. "But, then again, I may be too big to harass."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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