Imagine that you’re working for a company, and there are signs above the bathroom entrance that say “Whites Only.” Discrimination may not be that explicit today but what if your supervisor makes comments about the light complexion of your skin, refers to you as “Light Bright,” and gives you a poor performance review because she says that that she’s “never trusted light-skinned women?” What if you find noose drawings at your cubicle or taped to your locker? What if no Black staff can work in front of the counter or have ever been promoted? All of these scenarios may be considered employment discrimination based on race or color.
What is employment discrimination?
Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of people based on different categories, such as race, age, or sex. Employment discrimination can take many forms: a company might discriminate against you if you’re applying to work there, currently working there, or used to work there. Employment laws protect you if you fall under any of those categories.
There are several federal laws that protect employees, job seekers, or former employees from employment discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, or sex. Over the years, several federal laws have been enacted to prohibit discrimination based on disability, age, or even genetic information. Sometimes discrimination might be based on a combination or intersection of those factors, such as being harassed because you are Black and a woman.
There are many kinds of discrimination based on race and color alone; therefore, the focus of this post will be on Title VII’s protections based on race and color discrimination. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees, employment agencies, and labor organizations, such as unions.
In FY2018, the EEOC conducted 30,564 resolutions of race-based claims of discrimination.
What’s the difference between discrimination based on race or color?
It is against the law for an employer to discriminate against people based on their race or characteristics associated with race. Characteristics might include skin complexion, hair texture, or certain facial features. For example, a “no-beard” employment policy may discriminate against African-American men because Black men are more likely to have severe shaving bumps. If your employer does have a policy that predominantly affects one race, the employer must prove that the practice is job related and consistent with business necessity.
Race and color discrimination are not the same. Color discrimination is commonly understood as discrimination based on pigmentation, complexion, or skin shade or tone. So, an employer may be discriminating against a job applicant or employee based on the lightness, darkness, or other color characteristic of the person. Also, the African-American supervisor who gives a poor performance review because she’s “never trusted light-skinned women” may be discriminating based on color.
I Think There Is Discrimination at My Job, So Now What?
We know it can be very intimidating to file a claim against your employer. If you believe an employer has discriminated against you, you first file an administrative complaint with an agency responsible for enforcing the law. An employee should contact the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as soon as possible. The EEOC is a federal enforcement agency. It investigates charges of employment discrimination. Immediate action will help to ensure investigation of a claim and protect the complainant’s legal rights.
Also, it is important to know that some states and cities have their own laws prohibiting employment discrimination. State or local agencies responsible for enforcing those laws are called Fair Employment Practices Agencies or FEPAs. Usually the laws enforced by FEPAs are similar to those enforced by EEOC. Sometimes, FEPAs enforce laws that offer additional protections to workers. For example, there may be additional protections from discrimination because you are married or unmarried or have dependent children or because of your sexual orientation. A person can file a charge with either the EEOC or with a FEPA.
You would work with the EEOC or the FEPA to resolve the claim or obtain what is known as a “right-to-sue” letter. The idea behind first having the administrative process, is to help ensure the courts run smoothly and to give employers notice that claims may be filed against them. In some instances, the agency may file a lawsuit against the employer.