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What federal employees should know about racial discrimination

If there was still any doubt that racial discrimination continues to plague our nation and harm our society, the recent protests should put that doubt to rest. Despite our nation’s lofty ideals, our society falls short in many ways. These include workplace inequality, and federal agencies are not immune.

There is often a wide gulf between our constitutional ideals and the way they take shape in the office on a daily, personal level. What does this gulf look like? In 2019, Vox reported that although black workers accounted for only 13 percent of the workforce, they lodged 26 percent of all discrimination complaints filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Altogether, racial discrimination is the most common complaint the EEOC faces. And those facts only get us started.

Persistent inequality

As Vox and the EEOC both note, the problem of racism in the workplace is nothing new. Many officials have tried to tackle it, but as Vox noted, their efforts have rarely received the support they need to be effective. Indeed, Vox reminds us that in 1967, the EEOC entered this world “weak by design.” And since then, it has continued to struggle with its mission:

  • When lawmakers formed the EEOC, they didn’t give it the power to act against the employers it found were breaking the law. All the EEOC could do was recommend cases to the attorney general’s office.
  • From 1980 to 2019, the U.S. workforce grew by roughly 50 percent. But when you adjust for inflation, the EEOC’s budget shrank over that time.
  • Only 18 percent of all complaints filed with the agency lead to monetary rewards or workplace improvements. Racial discrimination complaints suffer from an even lower response rate—at just 15 percent.
  • The EEOC openly admits that it is understaffed. A former chair claims that if the EEOC were better funded and staffed more of these complaints would lead to changes, but the agency just doesn’t have the manpower to investigate them all thoroughly.
  • According to attorneys who have represented some of the workers filing these complaints, the EEOC’s investigation sometimes falls woefully short. In some cases, the only action it takes to investigate a claim before closing it is to get the employer’s response.
  • Meanwhile, the EEOC has pointed to studies that show racism continues to taint the nation’s workplaces. Instead of getting better, it may be getting worse. Studies have shown that people with lighter skin earned 8 to 15 percent more than those with darker skin.

These suggest what many people already know. Federal employees of color are likely to face unfair and illegal discrimination. Their reports often lead nowhere. The system designed to protect their rights creaks and shudders and doesn’t always run right. It often needs a big, strong push.

How to fight workplace discrimination

Treated unfairly and given inadequate protection, employees often need to ask lawyers to help them confront illegal discrimination. However, they still face some stiff challenges:

  • Employers often make false excuses for their behaviors. They cite reasons for their actions that have nothing to do with color, making it hard for others to prove that their actions were racially motivated. Proving these excuses are bogus often requires a great deal of documentation.
  • Workers often find it difficult to argue that racist behaviors and attitudes transform their workplace into a “hostile” environment. The standard can vary from court to court, and employers often argue the racism isn’t as widespread and pervasive as the workers claim. As Vox reported, one company argued that the 20 documented racist incidents one worker faced in his workplace amounted to only two or three incidents per year.

The result is that workers often face an uphill battle. Before they can take legal action, they need to file their complaints with people who may not have the time or motivation to help them. Then they often face employers who try to sweep everything under the rug.

The nation needs people to fight for equality. It needs people willing to push against bad behaviors and broken systems. And those people will want allies to amplify their voices and concerns.

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