As the US prepares to honor Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, it is a fitting tribute that this year's holiday falls on the same day as President Barack Obama's second inauguration.
With this summer marking the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington and Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, there is no doubt that as a nation we have made substantial strides with regard to racial equality and equality for all groups.
Racial discrimination still exists in 2013
Dr. King's principled stands helped light the spark that led to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act being enacted in 1964. Title VII aims to eradicate discrimination based on race (as well as other protected categories) and provides all individuals with equal opportunities regardless of color.
However, there is no question discrimination still exists in today's society and the workplace. Based on recent figures released by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), complaints of race discrimination have risen over the last 10 years, up from 28,912 in 2001 to 35,395 in 2011.
The EEOC has continued to bring racial harassment and unlawful
stereotyping claims against well-known companies, including some
egregious cases in which nooses appeared in the workplace.
In fact, just last year, one EEOC-instituted action against YRC/Yellow
Transportation resulted in an $11 million settlement. In this case,
the Commission claimed that the company created a racially hostile and
discriminatory environment and subjected black employees to multiple
incidents of hangman's nooses, racist graffiti, comments and cartoons as
well as harsher discipline and more difficult work assignments. The
EEOC also said that despite numerous complaints, the company failed to
take corrective action.
Lessons for employers
Employers need to be aware that they are prohibited from discriminating against applicants and employees based on their race. Further, it is critical to enforce related policies and provide training. Employers also need to make sure that all supervisors and employees know that management takes these claims seriously and that there are strict consequences for engaging in race discrimination.
Racial discrimination often surfaces in more subtle forms than the examples mentioned above. For instance, questions about arrests and convictions or employment status tend to have a disproportionate impact on minority racial and ethnic groups. Both federal and state legislators as well as the EEOC have already taken steps to address this.
Discrimination based on criminal records
With regard to criminal records, a handful of states, including Massachusetts and Hawaii and some of the nation's biggest cities (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco) have passed Ban the Box legislation prohibiting employers from asking applicants about their criminal history on job applications.
The EEOC also issued new guidance in 2012 with respect to the use of arrest and conviction records in hiring decisions. In it, the agency advised employers to make individualized assessments before precluding applicants with criminal records from consideration.
Discrimination eased on employment status
Another effort to combat a subtle form of racial discrimination can be found in the movement to prohibit employers from discriminating against individuals based on their employment status. States such as Oregon and New Jersey as well as the District of Columbia have already passed legislation to prohibiting employers from discriminating against unemployed individuals. Meanwhile, similar measures have been introduced in other states and in Congress.
By trying to limit employers from using information about arrests, convictions and employment status, such measures aim to promote racial equality and also provide each individual with the opportunity to be fairly considered from the outset and be judged on merit alone.While we have made much progress in the past 50 years, it remains to be seen what the next 50 will bring. With a new Congress and new state legislatures now in place, we have the opportunity to continue to move closer to Dr. King's dream of equality for all, and make the workplace more fair both today and in the future.