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Race Discrimination and Racial Harassment

Posted by Kathy Harrington-Sullivan | Nov 03, 2013 | 0 Comments

Is There a Difference Between Race Discrimination and Racial Harassment?

This summer, the issue of race in the workplace hit the mainstream when beloved chef and TV personality Paula Deen was sued by a former employee for her use of the “n” word and her admittance to planning a “plantation-style” wedding. Both the terms race discrimination and racial harassment were tossed around interchangeably by the media, leaving many to assume they were one in the same.

In actuality, while there is a difference between the two issues, they can both create a work environment that affects one's professional opportunities and violates his or her dignity.

Race Discrimination

Race discrimination is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “Protects individuals against employment decisions on the basis of race and color as well as national origin, sex or religion.”

Under the law, a company or supervisor may not make employment decisions, whether it's a hiring, termination, promotion, compensation, job training, or other condition of employment, based on his or her stereotypes and assumptions of an employee or potential employee's race. In addition, companies may not segregate or classify employees in regards to race, base benefits, work assignments or performance evaluations on race, or require a job applicant to disclose his or her race as a basis for hiring.

Racial Harassment

Although federal regulations do not specifically use the words “racial harassment” in terms of workplace law, the courts have held that racial harassment is a form of race discrimination.

Harassment occurs when one's conduct creates a threatening, intimidating or hostile work environment for an employee and interferes with that employee's work performance. The racial aspect comes into play when the behavior is based on one's race or color. The harasser may be the employee's supervisor, coworker, or someone outside the business, such as a client or customer.

Some examples of racial harassment include, but are not limited to:

  • Racial slurs
  • Offensive remarks or jokes about one's race or nationality
  • Intimidation
  • Display of racially offensive symbols
  • Physical threats or assaults

The law does not forbid teasing or an isolated incident, but if the harassment continues after the employee has asked his or harasser to stop, the victim may have recourse to sue the company for harassment under Title VII.

While most cases of race discrimination or harassment occur between coworkers or supervisors of different races, it's not unheard for it to happen between members of the same race or nationality. For instance, in Deen's case, although her case was eventually dismissed, she was sued by a Caucasian employee who was offended by her use of racially-charged comments. And this September, an African-American plaintiff was awarded $280,000 from STRIVE in New York, because her boss, who was also African-American, regularly called her the “n” word.

Last year, the EEOC received more than 33,500 race discrimination claims, many of these racial harassment suits. Although we think as a society we have evolved, the truth is there are still stereotypes based on race – and these stereotypes are affecting American workers' right to a safe workplace.

About the Author

Kathy Harrington-Sullivan

Kathy Harrington Sullivan is a Partner at Barrett & Farahany who helps potential clients understand the law, clarify their rights, and determine which steps they can take to protect themselves and their jobs.


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