EEOC Sees Rise in Intrarace Complaints of Color Bias

DWIGHT BURCH SAYS the insults began soon after he started working as a waiter at an Applebee’s restaurant in Jonesboro, Ga. His boss called him “black monkey” and “tar baby” and suggested he bleach his skin, he says, and then co-workers began taunting him, too.

“You name it, any dark-skinned, monstrous name you can think of, they called me it — porch monkey, jig-a-boo, blackie,” Mr. Burch recalls. “I was the brunt of every joke . . . from the moment I got there until when I left.”

A case of racial discrimination? No. The alleged abuse came from fellow African-Americans. But Mr. Burch sued anyway, becoming one of an increasing number of workers publicly complaining about “color discrimination” at the hands of fellow minority-group members. Mr. Burch has very dark skin, and his alleged tormenters were lighter- skinned.

Under federal law, discriminating against people based on the shade of their skin is distinct from — but just as illegal as — racial discrimination. For blacks, intrarace discrimination is an issue fraught with emotion and shame, a legacy of the era of slavery, when masters gave mixed-race, lighter-skinned slaves house jobs while darker ones were relegated to the fields.

Though blacks long have quietly discussed the issue among themselves, African-American leaders have avoided it, fearing public debate would detract attention from the issue of racial discrimination by whites. In 1988, director Spike Lee broached the topic of the light-dark divide in the movie “School Daze.” Some blacks applauded him for tackling the issue, while others criticized him for airing the community’s dirty laundry.

Now the issue is quietly coming out of the shadows. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which represented Mr. Burch in his suit, says it is handling more color-discrimination complaints pitting blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and others against members of their own race or ethnic group.

Color discrimination doesn’t necessarily involve racial bias. For example, whites can be guilty of color discrimination — but not racial discrimination — if they favor hiring light-skinned blacks over dark-skinned blacks. When classifying discrimination cases, EEOC officials consider the races of the involved parties and the nature of any allegedly derogatory comments.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the EEOC received an average of fewer than 500 complaints a year involving allegations of color bias. In fiscal 2002, it received nearly 1,400 color-bias complaints — about 3% of all discrimination complaints. EEOC officials say a significant number of those color-bias complaints involved intra-race allegations. The agency says since 1985 it has taken 19 color- discrimination cases to court and settled many others without suing.

As the nation becomes more diverse in what EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez calls the “melange millennium,” EEOC officials say they are focusing more on color and other “appearance discrimination” complaints. “We have a lot of racial blends, and we’re trying to work out a way to determine what kind of adverse employment decisions can occur as a result,” Ms. Dominguez says.

Since 1964, federal law has prohibited workplace discrimination “based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” Many people assume race and color are synonymous and that the victim of discrimination must be of a different race than the alleged discriminator. “Much of it goes unreported because people simply don’t know that such a distinction is covered by the law,” says Joan Ehrlich, an EEOC district director in San Francisco. She says she is instructing her staff “to more carefully screen and question [complainants] to determine if color played a role in the alleged discrimination.”

Robert Royal, the Atlanta-based EEOC lawyer who represented Mr. Burch, says he thinks more people don’t sue over black-on-black color bias because they don’t think it’s actionable. “They know that it exists, but they feel they just have to put up with it,” he says. “They are also embarrassed to talk about it.”

The issue was highlighted in a high-profile 1989 color- discrimination case, in which a black Internal Revenue Service clerk in Atlanta claimed a black supervisor fired her out of jealousy over the clerk’s lighter skin. The case resulted in a court ruling that federal law covers black-on-black color discrimination. “The statutes and case law repeatedly and distinctly refer to race and color,” U.S. District Judge Charles A. Moye wrote, in allowing the case to go forward. “To hold otherwise would mean that Congress and the Supreme Court have either mistakenly or purposefully overlooked an obvious redundancy.”

The clerk lost her case, however. The boss successfully argued that she was fired for her work performance.

Last year, the EEOC sued a Mexican restaurant in San Antonio on behalf of a white supervisor, who claimed he was forced to discriminate on the basis of color. The EEOC alleged that the restaurant’s Mexican-American owner told the supervisor not to allow “dark-skinned” Hispanics to work in the dining room. The employee quit and complained to the EEOC, which won the case. The restaurant was ordered to pay $100,000 in fines.

Mr. Burch, 37 years old, grew up in South Carolina in the early 1970s, when public schools were being desegregated. But white and black children sat separately, he recalls. Whites got books to read; blacks got coloring books. White students used racial slurs without fear of punishment.

But the pain caused by those insults was dwarfed, he says, by what he endured from other black children, who called him “black-a-boo” (meaning he was so black, he was scary). When he started working at an Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar outside Atlanta in late 2000, the abuse there “made me feel inferior and reverted me all the way back to my childhood and how I felt then,” says Mr. Burch. He left work angry and frustrated many nights and dreaded returning each day. “I live in this skin, and it’s not easy,” he adds.

Mr. Burch says he complained about the manager’s slurs to the manager and to a company hotline, but nothing was done. Later, he was reprimanded for what the EEOC called “minor offenses” and then fired in March 2001. The EEOC concluded that the firing was retaliatory and sued Applebee’s International Inc., based in Overland Park, Kansas.

In written responses to the lawsuit filed with court, several Applebee’s managers said Mr. Burch was fired for poor performance and attitude. In his written response, the manager accused of verbally abusing Mr. Burch alleged that the waiter often insulted the boss’s lighter skin-tone. “I will admit that I responded by calling him dark- skinned on several occasions but only in response to his comments,” Reginald Billups wrote, conceding he shouldn’t have responded in kind. Mr. Burch denies calling Mr. Billups names.

Last month, Applebee’s settled the case and agreed to give Mr. Burch $40,000 for lost pay and “emotional distress,” while it denied liability or wrongdoing. The company also agreed to conduct antidiscrimination training and to report to the EEOC all color- harassment claims made in the next 18 months by employees at any of the chain’s Georgia restaurants. The company also agreed to include color discrimination in its written harassment and discrimination policies.

A spokesman for Applebee’s says the company violated “no laws, rules or regulations of any kind” in its treatment of Mr. Burch. “This matter was settled to clear the way for the sale of our restaurants in Atlanta to one of our franchisees,” says Frank Ybarra, the spokesman. “We agreed to a settlement only to avoid any delay or additional expense.”


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