Race-Based Employment Discrimination: What African Americans Should Know

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Most Americans work every day. Jobs help us pay our bills, feed our families, and provide us with a sense of security. While nearly everyone must work, getting and keeping work is particularly important for African Americans. Because of the historical wealth gap, African Americans cannot rely on other sources of wealth to meet their needs. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that African Americans are more likely than members of other races to work two or more jobs at the same time. So, African Americans have a greater need for fair workplaces with fair pay.

Despite African Americans’ need for steady and fair employment, race-based employment discrimination is a constant problem in America. In 2017, Harvard researchers found that nearly 60 percent of African Americans had experienced racial discrimination relating to hiring, promotion, or pay. Further, though the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) hears thousands of employment discrimination cases each year, racial bias is by far the most common claim. Most claims of racial bias – over 80 percent – are filed by African Americans. So, not only is race-based employment discrimination an issue, it is an issue that disproportionately impacts African Americans.

Though the persistence of racial bias in the workplace is a sad reality, the good news is that there are laws on the books that can help. Because Black employees are likely to experience discrimination, African Americans workers must educate themselves about these laws. Read on to learn about the laws that help Black workers deal with race-based employment discrimination.


Employment Discrimination Law: A Quick Primer

For many years, employers could freely discriminate against African Americans and other people of color. No laws prevented them from doing so. In 1963, civil rights leaders held the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A year later, their efforts resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act states that it is illegal for employers to “refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Because race is one of the protected classes listed in the statute, race-based discrimination falls squarely within Title VII’s scope. However, the law only applies to certain companies. For instance, companies with fewer than 15 employees are exempt.

One of the best features of Title VII is that it applies to multiple types of discrimination. Most discrimination laws require proof of intent. While some parts of Title VII require proof of intentional discrimination, others allow an employee to show that certain policies affected people of color more than whites. This theory, which lawyers call “disparate impact,” can be quite helpful in cases where intent cannot be proven.

Though Title VII is the federal anti-discrimination law, all states have their own employment discrimination laws. Most of these laws are modeled after Title VII and work in a similar manner. However, state laws may cover situations or employers that federal law does not.


Types of Race-Based Employment Discrimination?

As stated, Title VII prevents employers from basing decisions on a person’s race. This can be the person’s actual race or the race the employer believes the person to be. So, if an employer believes that an applicant is Black and discriminates against them for that reason, Title VII applies, even if the applicant belongs to another race.

Title VII applies to many different employment actions. Though not a complete list, Title VII may apply when:

  • African American applicants are not hired because clients might not want to work with “people like that;”
  • Qualified African American employees are consistently passed over for promotions while the positions are filled with less-qualified white applicants;
  • African American employees are paid less than new white hires in the same position.
  • African American employees are assigned to “black” territories and white employees are assigned to “white” territories.

One of the most common types of race-based employment discrimination is harassment, sometimes referred to as a hostile environment. Hostile environment claims cover racist “jokes,” comments, “nicknames,” cartoons, posters, and other actions or items that make the workplace uncomfortable for people of color.

However, one off-color joke will not turn an otherwise suitable office into a hostile environment. To see if a workplace is hostile, courts evaluate the severity and frequency of the conduct. The more severe something is (such as physical contact), the less often it has to happen for the court to find harassment. Conversely, the less severe the act is, the more often it has to happen. So, calling a person a racist name once may not be enough, but using the racist name on a regular basis might be.


Addressing Race-Based Employment Discrimination

If race-based discrimination happens at your job, create a record. Take notes about offensive conversations or take pictures of offending items. Make note of how you found out about differences in pay, status, or promotion. Also, the Supreme Court has ruled that before filing a lawsuit, you must notify your supervisor or other person to give the employer the opportunity to address the issue. Also, you must “exhaust your administrative remedies,” meaning that you must allow the EEOC or your state agency an opportunity to evaluate the claim before you proceed to court. If the EEOC gives you a “right-to-sue” letter, you can then file a lawsuit.

Because jobs are necessary, many people continue to work while their cases are being considered by an agency or court. Employees should know that Title VII expressly forbids retaliation against employees who file discrimination claims. The terms of your employment (pay, title, etc.) should not change in any way as a result of filing a claim.

In cases of race-based employment discrimination, many remedies are available. Affected employees may get back pay, be reinstated, or be compensated for pain and suffering. At times, employers may also be required to pay legal fees, court costs, and witness fees. State law may provide more remedies than federal law.

Job discrimination affects your income, your health, and your future. While remedies are available, employment discrimination laws are complicated. Unfortunately, few plaintiffs win. A lawyer will be best equipped to guide you through the process and increase your chances of success. The African American Attorney Network can help. Use The Network’s helpful search tool to find an employment discrimination attorney near you.