Rev. Wright May be Right About Race–in Corporate America

March 19th, 2008 by Phil Mattera

Barack Obama made a heroic effort this week to defuse the racial tensions caused by the attention now being given to fiery sermons once delivered by his pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In order to do that, Obama gave a speech that acknowledged the legitimacy of Rev. Wright’s indictment of racism in America while simultaneously arguing that such discrimination was to a significant extent a thing of the past. Obama said: “The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made…”

It’s often taken for granted that the corporate world is one arena in which such progress has clearly taken place, but a recent announcement by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission undermines that assumption. The EEOC announced that during the last fiscal year complaints about racial discrimination in the private sector were up 12 percent, reaching the highest level since 1994. This was part of an overall rise of 9 percent in discrimination cases of all kinds.

Last week, the EEOC announced its latest settlement of a racial discrimination case:

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today announced the settlement of a race and national origin harassment lawsuit for $1.9 million and significant remedial relief against Allied Aviation Services, Inc. on behalf of African American and Hispanic workers who were the targets of racial slurs, graffiti, cartoons, and hangman’s nooses at a facility in the Dallas/Ft. Worth airport. The company identifies itself at the “largest American domestically owned provider of fueling services to the commercial aviation industry.”

The EEOC charged in the case that African American and Hispanic employees were subjected to a racially hostile work environment consisting of verbal and other abuse by their co-workers on a daily basis. Racial graffiti, including swastikas and the N-word, were commonplace and in plain sight in employee restrooms, on fuel tanks, and written on aircraft. An offensive cartoon belittling a Hispanic worker was placed under glass on a manager’s desk for months. Additionally, there was a so-called “hit list” targeting blacks as well as references to the “back of the bus” and “going back to Africa.” Also, a white employee married to an African American was subjected to racial abuse.

A scan of EEOC’s press release archive shows a series of other cases involving the failure of corporations to address racial problems in their workplaces, including some in which the problem was management itself. Last month, the giant investment company Vanguard Group agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a retaliation lawsuit brought by the Commission, which “had charged that following an African American employee’s complaints of race discrimination, Vanguard subjected him to a series of adverse employment actions culminating in his termination.”

And the month before that, the EEOC announced it had settled a race discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against Lockheed Martin, the country’s largest military contractor. The company agreed to pay $2.5 million and provide other relief “on behalf of an African American electrician who was subjected to a racially hostile work environment at several job sites nationwide – including threats of lynching and the ‘N-word.’”

During 2007, the companies involved in the settlement of race discrimination cases with the EEOC included Ford Motor, Target Corp., the Walgreen drug store chain and AK Steel. And all this is from an agency that critics such as Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski charge has been falling down on the job. There were also race discrimination cases in which the EEOC was not involved, including one in which FedEx agreed last April to pay $55 million to settle charges that it systematically paid black and Latino workers less than whites.

Rev. Wright’s rhetoric may not be in fashion these days, but the racism he railed against is far from extinct in Corporate America.

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