Hate Crime Labeled “Horseplay?”
The scenario? An African American worker walks into his workspace, or gets into his truck. He finds a hangman’s noose left there by an unknown assailant. The symbol is an unmistakable message for all to see. Another worker finds a message on the wall brandishing the “N-word.” These workers report their experiences. They are justifiably feeling violated and disturbed. There is an “investigation.” In most cases, the perpetrator cannot be identified. Subsequently, the victim is told there is little to be done. These anonymous threats – these hate crimes go unpunished. In many scenarios, the actions are repeated.
Incidents like these are on the rise in this country. The frequency of these assaults is so great that the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission cannot keep up with the number of cases. And those are just the incidents being reported.
Instead of living the dream Dr. King envisioned, many African Americans are finding their workplace the stuff of nightmares.
Can this symbol ever be seen as merely a “joke?” This is the claim many perpetrators make when caught. They were “just kidding around.” Their employers also use “humor” as a defense against liability for encouraging an environment that fosters hate crimes against co-workers.
The answer is in the history of these symbols.
In a post-Civil-War America, angry slave owners often reacted violently to the disruption to their lifestyles. Following the abolition of slavery, many took the law into their own hands. The backlash created an environment of oppression and terror. It was an era that brought with it the lynching of over 2,500 black Americans. This practice lasted over a hundred years. But it did not stop there. The hangman’s noose has come to be the unmistakable symbol of our country’s brutal past. A noose reignites a primal fear, instilled in black Americans for decades. It’s meaning is crystal clear, and it is no joke.
“But it is [the] extra-legal hangings that make the hangman’s knot especially ominous. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an epidemic of lynchings swept the nation. At least 4,700 people — mostly men but also women and children — were brutalized, mutilated and hanged from trees, telephone poles and bridges across the nation. […]Look closely at the pictures (if you can stand to) and you’ll see, not always, but often enough, a perfectly tied hangman’s knot.[…] The noose … became a stand-in for vigilantism, for murder by community, an unveiled threat and a symbol to brandish to keep blacks especially ‘in their place.’ ”
The hangman’s noose remains a symbol of the “American Black Holocaust.” It cannot ever be treated as innocuous. Displaying a noose where a person of African American descent will see it, has historically meant a direct threat on that person’s life. It is an egregiously violent act. Those at whom it is directed have not forgotten its meaning. It is impossible to believe that any person placing these symbols for others to see, is ignorant of how their victims will naturally respond.
Disturbing Nationwide Trend
Such symbols of racial intolerance are manifesting nationally. The trend demonstrating an alarming spiral backwards into a place in our history that should never be revisited, except in history books. It is important that those dark days never be repeated. Below are a sampling of cases the EEOC has filed in just the past two years.
On at least two occasions, a noose was found hanging from a factory pipe. The nooses were placed in an area heavily used by black employees. This was at an ink manufacturing company in Rockdale, Illinois. One of the nooses was accompanied by a picture of an employee’s son and his friend hanging by the neck.
At a San Antonio manufacturing company, several employees filed racial harassment charges with the EEOC. Afterward, a noose was displayed at their workplace. In response to employee complaints about the noose. The superintendent dismissed their complaints, calling them “B***s***.” The superintendent also stated that he felt the noose “was no big deal,” and that the employees were “too sensitive.”
In January 2013, a federal jury found that two Black employees of a North Carolina trucking company had been subjected to a racially hostile work environment. The incident involved a coworker. That act involved displaying a noose. The coworker then asked plaintiff if he wanted to “hang from our family tree.”
Regrettably, this hateful gesture has not been confined to America’s workplaces. It has also been appearing in universities throughout the country. These symbols of hate are often coupled with a Confederate Flag. Recently, in Los Angeles County, Bellflower and Mayfair High Schools each had nooses planted on school property. One site had the noose accompanied by graffiti declaring “God hates black people.” But the worst aspect was the chilling reaction on the part of a police sergeant investigating the incident. His statement? “A noose in itself is not making any correlation to anything.” That reaction demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the overwhelming symbolism contained in the gesture. It may also represent a malicious pretense at ignorance.
The Damage Done
Harassment based on race is demeaning. It can deteriorate the work environment. Racial harassment can subject a person to emotional, physical and financial harm. Such behavior can also make co-workers feel uncomfortable and distracted. This activity contributes to a lost interest in work, constant anxiety and a feeling that the workplace environment is unsafe.
With images of the Ferguson demonstrations on the nightly news, it would be foolish to ignore the national trend towards minimizing people of color. It is important to stop these sentiments in their tracks, as they are in no way even marginally amusing when expressed, and they can lead to violence.
What You Can Do
Acts designed to humiliate, intimidate and degrade individuals based on their racial origins, are unlawful in the workplace. Racist language and epithets, also display an animus that has no place in a civilized society. Any of these acts can be the basis for a claim against the offending parties. If insufficiently remedied by the employer, they may give rise to a claim for job-related racial harassment.
Workplace racial harassment is on the rise. Symbols of racial hatred are being brandished anonymously across the country. The use of the hangman’s noose to intimidate and oppress persons in their place of employment cannot be tolerated. Such behavior is unlawful. The people subjected to these offensive displays of overt racism have potential for recourse in our civil justice system.
If it has happened to you, contact an attorney in your state and fight back against this behavior. Given the history, you can be sure you will be on the side of the angels.
Lazear Mack, LLP
Employment Law Attorneys
436 14th Street, Suite 1117