The racial appropriation cases of Rachel Dolezal and now possibly Shaun King raise a labor-law question: Is there a way for black civil rights groups to ensure that their employment are, in fact, black?
As conservative bloggers use these cases to question the credibility of civil rights organizations, those employers are left defenseless by employment regulations that will not allow them to resort to asking people of color to verify their race in order to get a job.
In June Ms. Dolezal resigned her position as president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington after admitting to falsely portraying herself as black.
Wednesday, Mr. King, an activist with the "Black Lives Matter" movement, denied claims made by conservative bloggers’ that he lied about being biracial in order to gain audience, credibility, and a scholarship to Morehouse, a historically black college. He is also accused of falsely claiming to have been the victim of a racially motivated attack.
King gained a large Twitter following in 2014 as part of the Black Lives Matter movement when he became outspoken about the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri.
Unlike Dolezal, King was not primarily employed by a black civil rights organization. But what if he had been? According to Carol Miaschoff, assistant legal council, for the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) says in an interview of any employer that wants to ensure that the employee is a person of color, “They are kinda stuck.”
“Legally under Title 7 there is a defense for discrimination under the bona fide occupational qualification, or BFOQ, which allows an employer to choose someone based on their religion, sex or national origin. Like having a woman sales person in a store that sold [women's] underwear,” Ms. Miaskoff says. “However, race is never a BFOQ. I think that speaks to the unwiseness of asking straight out ‘Are you black or white’ in a hiring situation. There would be no defense. There’s no good way to do this.”
Don Goodman, certified master resume writer, job search strategist, and career coach, in the New York City area says in an interview that it never pays to fake your credentials in any circumstance.
“Fudging race is in the news because it’s so new, but I think that if they’re fudging their race you’ll probably find they fudged a number of other things as well,” Mr. Goodman says. “In a digital world you’re just not going to get away with anything.”
Goodman adds that most companies check with past employers to verify employment dates and in the case of those seeking sales positions may even check candidate’s tax forms “to see if they really got the commissions they are claiming for sales figures.”
“I’ve never heard for somebody checking if somebody’s race is correct,” he says. “That would be tricky. The woman [Dolzeal] was the head of the NAACP so it was critical to her job function, but otherwise I don’t know why anybody would bother to check.”
Nevertheless, Goodman points out, “Larger companies generally have a diversity initiative where they’re looking to increase the number of minorities in the company and I guess somebody could play to that. I don’t know that it’s prevalent.”
Director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU, Dennis Parker, gave his personal opinion as a civil rights attorney of 35 years. “There are serious issues of race in the United States, issues involving the improper use of force against people of color, the failure of law enforcement to protect communities of color, enormous wealth disparities between whites and people of color, questions of the adequacy of education and huge differences between opportunities that are afforded children of color and white color…disparities in employment," he said. "All of these are extremely serious issues that we, as a nation need to confront. The issue about a particular individual with Black Lives Matter is not a significant issue. It is a diversion from the serious problems we have as a nation.”
“In my opinion any time spent worrying about this is a diversion from the issues that need our attention,” he says.
Mr. Parker adds that “Fair hiring should not involve hiring someone because of their race,” and that traditionally “for the most part in most areas the determination of race is made by self-identification.”
“If someone took the position that, ‘I’m not hiring you because I don’t believe you’re really black,’ then they are violating fair employment laws by doing that,” Parker says. “Unlike educational credentials or work experience, race is almost never a bona fide occupational qualification and so there are virtually no legitimate reasons for taking action against someone because of their own racial identification.”