It is unlawful under federal and state laws to discriminate against employees on the basis of race or color as to any employment actions, such as hiring, firing, providing compensation, providing job assignments, offering fringe benefits, or imposing any other term or condition of employment. The primary federal statute prohibiting race discrimination is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which is codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., and prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of several named characteristics.
Title VII covers private employers and state or local government agencies that have 15 or more employees who have worked for the employer for at least 20 calendar weeks. Some state laws also prohibit race and color discrimination.
What is the difference between race and color discrimination? Race discrimination is treating a job applicant or employee unfavorably in connection with work because of personal characteristics associated with race, which may include not just skin color but other traits like facial features or hair texture. Color discrimination involves unfavorable treatment based solely on skin color.
Race and color discrimination are also unlawful when based on an employee’s association with or marriage to a person of a particular race or color. Discrimination is prohibited not only when the victim and perpetrator are of different races but also when the perpetrator is the same race or color as the victim.
Employment Policies or Practices Involving Race or Color Discrimination
Not Just Words
Racial discrimination can also include a display of racially offensive symbols in the workplace.
Discriminatory employment policies or practices can involve disparate treatment or disparate impact. In disparate treatment cases, there is intent to discriminate. For example, an advertisement stating “no black applicants will be considered” is an example of disparate treatment. Similarly, if your employer does not promote deserving black employees because they are black, this is disparate treatment.
There is a narrow exception to the prohibition against disparate treatment. An employer may use race as a criterion if the decision rests on a bona fide occupational qualification. This means that an employer may distinguish among people based on a racial trait if it is essential to performing job duties. For example, if a role in a film calls for a white actress, it is not race or color discrimination to issue a casting call for white actresses or to only hire white actresses that audition.
Disparate impact exists when an employer institutes a seemingly neutral employment policy or practice that has an adverse effect on people of a certain race or color. For example, a policy not to hire applicants who don’t keep their hair straight for an airline stewardess job, regardless of race, might have a disparate impact against most African American women. An employer can defend its policy by showing it is necessary to business operations and is job-related.
It is unlawful to harass a person because of that person’s race or color. This includes obvious harassment from racial slurs to offensive and derogatory comments. For example, if a product manager spreads false rumors to his or her team that a black employee submits false claims for government benefits and didn’t go to college, the employee may have a claim for race discrimination.
Race and color discrimination can also include a display of racially offensive symbols in the workplace, such as drawing a swastika on a Jewish employee’s locker. In order to be actionable, harassment must result in an adverse employment decision or be so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile work environment. A harasser can be a supervisor, a coworker, or your employer’s client or customer.