Hate Crime, Hangman’s Noose and Racially Hostile Work Environment

On December 26, 2013, the United States Department of Justice announced in a press release that a 27-year-old Katy, Texas man was charged with a federal hate crime related to a racially motivated violent attack and assault on a 79-year-old African-American man. During that same month, the Department of Justice announced resolution of a separate hate crime case in which a man pled guilty for his role in an April 30, 2012 cross burning in front of an interracial family’s home. As one United States Attorney commented, hate motivated crimes will not be tolerated in this country and the Department of Justice will vigorously prosecute individuals who violate the rights of others based upon race.

Workplace racial harassment persists in the 21st century. Symbols of racial hatred can turn up on the job. When that occurs, people subjected to offensive displays of overt racism may have potential recourse in our civil justice system.

In Texas, both Texas Labor Code Chapter 21 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protect individuals against employment discrimination and harassment based upon race. As explained by the Texas Workforce Commission in its website at www.twc.state.tx.us/crd/racial-discrimination.html , an employer may not discriminate against an employee or applicant in hiring, termination, promotion, compensation, job training or any other term, condition, or privilege of employment. Further, Texas employers may not legally base employment decisions on stereotypes and assumptions about abilities, traits or the performance of individuals of certain racial groups.

As explained by the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division, ethnic slurs, racial jokes, offensive or derogatory comments, or other verbal or physical conduct based on a person’s race constitute unlawful racial harassment if the work-related conduct creates an intimidating, hostile of offensive working environment, or interferes with the individual’s work performance. Accordingly, both the Texas Commission on Human Rights Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, have been interpreted to prohibit requiring people to work in a discriminatorily hostile or abusive environments.

It has been written that the hangman’s noose is among the most repugnant of all racist symbols, because it is itself an instrument of violence. As one appellate court put it: Like a slave-masters whip, the image of a noose is deeply a part of this country’s collective consciousness and history and any further explanation of how one could infer racial motive appears quite unnecessary.

For its part, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has prosecuted civil rights lawsuits related to hanging nooses displayed on the job.

In 2013, EEOC trial attorneys obtained a verdict of $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for two truck drivers against a trucking company accused of subjecting the employees to racial slurs and nooses. Slurs included use of the words coon, boy, token black and monkey, as well as the N-word. In addition, one of the plaintiffs in that case testified that he was approached by a co-worker with a noose who told him it was for him and asked if he wanted to hang from the family tree.

During December 2012, a South Dallas, Texas mill agreed to pay $500,000 to a class of 14 Black employees to settle an EEOC racial harassment lawsuit alleging that the mill exposed Black employees to violent, racist graffiti and racial slurs by co-workers, such as KKK, swastikas, Confederate flags and other symbols, including the display of nooses at an employee workstation. Black employees alleged that supervisors allowed the behavior to continue unchecked, according to the EEOC.

A couple of months before resolution of that noose case, EEOC trial attorneys obtained a verdict of $200,000.00 in a San Antonio, Texas racial harassment lawsuit that charged a San Antonio manufacturing company with subjecting three African-American employees to a racially hostile work environment. Evidence included use of the N-word by the highest ranking official at the San Antonio plant. According to the press release discussing the racial harassment verdict, several employees filed racial harassment charges with the EEOC and, afterward, a noose was displayed at the workplace. In response to employee complaints about the noose, the superintendent described such reports as “BS” and stated that the noose “was no big deal” and that the complaints were “too sensitive.”

Other noose cases prosecuted by EEOC attorneys include a case in which a black delivery driver was subjected to racial epithets, including the N-word, and exposed to a visible noose hanging in a receiving area at his employer’s business. In that case, an EEOC attorney remarked in September 27, 2012 press release that racial epithets and nooses have no place in today’s workplaces. Earlier that same year, another EEOC attorney involved with a racial harassment lawsuit echoed that sentiment, encouraging employers to help make workplace discrimination a thing of the past. Detailed within a February 21, 2012 press release, allegations in that case described a racially hostile work environment at a cement and concrete product company, including a noose displayed at worksite, racially derogatory language, race-based name calling and references to the Ku Klux Klan. As a result of that hostile work environment lawsuit, the company agreed to settle the case for $400,000.00 apportioned among seven class members and other relief such as a requirement that the company conduct EEO training.

Displaying of a noose was an allegation in hostile work environment lawsuit involving a restaurant. EEOC attorneys sued a restaurant charging, in part, that restaurant managers allegedly posted images of a noose, a Klan hood and other racist depictions, including a dollar bill that was defaced with a noose around the neck of a black-faced George Washington, swastikas, and the image of a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood, according to the EEOC.

Information about employment-related racial harassment can be obtained at the website of the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division (TWC). In addition, more information about the EEOC, the laws it enforces and the procedures one must follow in order to correctly file a charge of racial harassment is available in the agency’s website at www.eeoc.gov . A Houston Office for the EEOC and filing of employment-related complaints about racial harassment is located at Total Plaza, 1201 Louisiana Street, 6th Floor, Houston, Texas 77002. It is open Monday – Friday 8 a.m. to 4:30 pm. The phone number is listed as 1(800)669-4000.

When workplace racial harassment, including abusive racial slurs, overt symbols of racism and racist epithets, impacts an employer’s business operations in Houston or elsewhere in Texas, people subjected to this type of hostile work environment may contact the TWC or EEOC to make charges of discrimination and trigger state or federal investigations of racial harassment complaints. In addition, people subjected to unlawful workplace racial harassment and hostile work environments may consult an attorney to discuss whether the facts and circumstances of the potential employment discrimination case support filing of a racial harassment lawsuit.