How to Prove Racial Discrimination in the Workplace

racial discrimination in the workplace

The sad reality is that in 2023, racial discrimination in the workplace remains a problem.

Though some people encounter supervisors or coworkers making blatantly racist comments, more often racism is insidious or systemic.

Whatever its form, federal and state laws strictly prohibit racism at work.

Types of Racial Discrimination That Occur in the Workplace

Racism at work can be hard to detect and prove.

If your boss told you he promoted your coworker because she is white and you are not, that would be direct evidence of discrimination. In most cases, it’s not that clear.

Disparate Treatment

When an employer intentionally treats one employee in a less favorable manner than another employee for discriminatory reasons it is known as disparate treatment.

For example, a restaurant may claim to be non-discriminatory because it employs Latino and white servers.

But if all of the Latino servers end up working behind the counter while white servers interact directly with customers, racism may be afoot. 

Another scenario is where a qualified employee of one race is passed over for a promotion and a less-qualified employee of another race gets the job. 

Employers may also discriminate in terms of whom they reprimand.

Racial profiling in the workplace occurs when a supervisor suspects or targets an employee because of that person’s race, not because the supervisor has a specific reason to believe that particular employee violated a rule.

Sometimes supervisors discriminate by applying otherwise neutral company policies differently.

Firing an Asian man for being late once when his white co-worker is regularly late would be an example. 

If an employee files an employment discrimination complaint and the employer retaliates, that too would support a complaint.

Implicit racial bias in the workplace—having attitudes toward people of a certain race that you are not even consciously aware that you hold—also results in discrimination. 

Finally, racial harassment in the workplace is a particularly pervasive problem.

Harassment includes behavior such as using racial slurs, making racist jokes, sending offensive messages, and making comments based on stereotypes.

While simple teasing or isolated comments may not rise to the level of discrimination, harassment is illegal if it creates a hostile work environment or results in a negative employment action (like an employee being demoted or fired). 

Disparate Impact

Some racism may be unintentional but nonetheless have a disparate impact on one racial group.

For instance, some employers have a blanket ban on hiring workers with a criminal conviction on their record.

However, because arrest and incarceration rates are higher for Black and Latino individuals, this ban may have a discriminatory effect.  

What Laws Protect Against Racism at Work?

Both federal and state laws prohibit racism at work.

Federal Protections

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the primary federal law protecting employees from racial discrimination in the workplace.

Under Title VII, an employer with 15 or more employees cannot discriminate against a person because of the individual’s race, religion, sex, color, national origin, age or genetic information. 

The law prohibits discrimination in all phases of work:

  • Refusing to hire someone for a job or training program;
  • Offering lesser compensation, benefits, or work conditions; and
  • Classifying or segregating employees in a way that deprives them of opportunities.

Title VII also bars employment agencies and labor unions from classifying individuals based on race or refusing to refer them for jobs or training programs because of race.

Before filing a discrimination lawsuit, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires you to file a charge of discrimination against your employer (though the process is different for federal government employees).

The EEOC will investigate the claim and, if they cannot resolve it administratively, issue a Notice of Right to Sue. 

State Protections

States like New York and California have laws similar to Title VII making racial discrimination in the workplace illegal.

Some states also offer administrative complaint procedures. Because you may have options as to where to file a complaint, it’s best to consult with an attorney.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have Been Racially Discriminated Against at Work?

If you think you were passed over for a job or promotion or fired for racist reasons, Ottinger Employment Lawyers can help.

Since opening our practice in 1999, we have helped thousands of employees enforce their rights.

We have recovered millions of dollars in verdicts and settlements on behalf of our clients, and we want to help you too.

Call today or contact us online to discuss your case.

Author Photo

Robert Ottinger, Esq.

Robert Ottinger is an employment attorney who focuses on representing executives and employees in employment disputes. Before starting his firm, Robert slugged it out in courtrooms trying cases for the government. Robert served as a Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice in Los Angeles and then as Assistant Attorney General for the New York Attorney General’s Office in Manhattan.

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