EEOC Wants to 'E-Race' Discrimination in the Workplace

Naomi Earp, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, discusses the current state of discrimination in the workplace and their new anti-discrimination initiative.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: An update from Vietnam, after that president's historic visit. But first, on this program we'd like bring you conversations with newsmakers from time to time. Today, Naomi Churchill Earp, the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

She's only the second African-American woman to head the EEOC, the first since the late 1970s. The EEOC is the agency that takes on discrimination in the workplace. Naomi Earp joins us in the studio. Welcome.

Ms. NAOMI CHURCHILL EARP (Chair, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission): Thank you.

MARTIN: Why did you want to do this job?

Ms. EARP: I honesty feel called. Civil rights as a mission, as a career, it's something that I feel in my heart. And it's a calling.

MARTIN: And how did you discover this calling? I know that you're an attorney, which should seem to be handy in this job, but do you remember what it is that stimulated it?

Ms. EARP: It was somewhat serendipity, I think. My undergraduate work is in social work, so I knew at a very early age I wanted to be in a career that helped others. It grew, though, from being so close to the problems in social work that I thought law would give me some distance, and civil rights was just a very, very close career to being a social worker.

MARTIN: Now, the EEOC, as I said, is the agency that takes on discrimination in the workplace. I'd like to ask you have you ever felt that you were discriminated against at work?

Ms. EARP: I'm 57 years old, and I would say yes. But the interesting thing is I never know if the feeling was because I'm female or because I'm black. Coming of age in the late '60s and the early '70s, I was often the only black, and sometimes the only woman in my various jobs. So, yes, there is always a feeling of do they really want me here?

MARTIN: What is the biggest source of complaints before the EEOC?

Ms. EARP: The single largest category are allegations of race discrimination. That's followed very closely by allegations of reprisal for filing a discrimination charge.

MARTIN: Does one ethnic group account for the lion's share of complaints, or are they evenly distributed?

Ms. EARP: By far, blacks complain more than other groups.

MARTIN: File complaints?

Ms. EARP: File complaints more than other groups.

MARTIN: The agency filed a complaint just this week, and the plaintiff was an Iranian, a Muslim. The agency filed suit against Merrill Lynch, the brokerage house, and it said that he had been discriminated against, I think in part because of national origin. Is that an important source of complaints these days as well?

Ms. EARP: Since September 11th, complaints based on religion, national origin and color have both been trending upward.

MARTIN: Your first initiative when you were appointed last March was something called E-RACE, eradicating racism and colorism from the workplace. Now I'm sure most people know what racism is, but I'm not sure everybody knows what colorism is. So what is that?

Ms. EARP: Color is pretty intuitive. It has to do with pigment, and it has to do with shade. As America has become more diverse, the number of color charges have increased. There are Asians, as well as Hispanics, as well as African-Americans who are rainbow within their various nationalities.

MARTIN: In fact, that the agency, all the information says that from 1992 to 2006, the number of complaints alleging color-based discrimination rose from 374 to more than 1,200 in a fiscal year 2006. And was that generally the pattern, that persons who were darker skinned alleged that they had been disadvantaged?

Ms. EARP: Absolutely. And we expect those numbers to continue to increase. There are instances of Hispanics - if you're brown, you work in a kitchen. If you're lighter and more Spaniard looking, you work in the front of the restaurant of the store. So we expect to see more of that as America becomes increasingly more diverse.

MARTIN: Now, I understand as we discussed that there are over a thousand of these complaints just based on skin color prejudice alone. But are any of them within the same group alleging skin color prejudice?

Ms. EARP: Yes. A couple of years ago, EEOC filed suit against a restaurant where a dark-skin employee was being intimidated, harassed by a lighter-skinned manager. They're both black.

MARTIN: Wow. I'm speaking with Naomi Earp, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, here in the studio.

I noticed that immediately after you were appointed and after you launched the EEOC initiative, you filed a class-action suit against Wallgreens, accusing the drugstore chain of discriminating against African-Americans for assignments and promotion.

And, of course, Wallgreens denies the charges. The reason I was interested in this is that in recent years, it has been assumed that conservatives in general - Republicans - have been more skeptical of a class-action approach, preferring to address issues of discrimination sort of in a case by case basis. And I just wonder first - I don't know if you're a Republican. Are you?

Ms. EARP: I am.

MARTIN: And I just wondered - is that a false impression?

Ms. EARP: There have been different times in history where Republicans use the class-action approach less frequently than at other times. The early '80s is a time when EEOC did almost no disparate impact cases. My view is we need to be nimble and responsive to the times.

We're an agency that is not exactly flush with resources, and discrimination itself has become more subtle, more difficult to ferret out. So I am all for using every tool at our disposal, and that includes systemic cases, high-impact cases, class cases.

MARTIN: And you talked about sort of being nimble for the times. This is a case I wanted to talk to you about. The EEOC is not a party to the case. It's about the Bank of America.

Bank of America is, I believe, the second largest bank in the country. It's a private lawsuit, but a number of African-American employees have sued Bank of America, saying that they were steered to working mainly with black clients.

The reason I ask is that the employees who sued said that they were told that black customers prefer to deal with black professionals, and that's why they were steered toward these cases. I just wonder how common is that now for people to claim customer preference?

Ms. EARP: The question of customer service has been around since Jim Crow days, practically. But it seems to be re-emerging. I think that it's a very difficult time for employers who want to be responsive to their base. They want to be responsive to two decades of having diversity programs.

But the law essentially says customer preference is unlawful. I would encourage an employer who has some sense of trying to respond to customers to make very, very sure that is a case by case situation, that they get legal advice, and that the employees being assigned specifically because of a customer request want to do that, as opposed to just blanketly being steered to either a market area or to a customer base.

MARTIN: One thing that I wondered if you have ever thought about, some people would argue that because - you know in a way, we're hypersensitive - that some people would argue that because there's been so much awareness about diversity in the workplace - I know you've worked to enhance diversity. It's been part of your career.

Do you think that - would someone make the argument that (unintelligible) is too quick to complain about discrimination? When, in fact, what the real issue is people just aren't that used to be around people who are different than them. Do you have an opinion about that?

Ms. EARP: I think to some extent, we are too quick to see racism, but it doesn't come without a foundation. There is so much trust that is missing in different parts of a community. I'm always struck when I travel through the South by how genteel and polite everyone is.

And blacks and whites seem to have a solid understanding of each other. You go to a restaurant, they can complete each other's sentences. But they leave the restaurant and they go in completely different directions. It's my view that probably the most honest dialogue about race takes place below the Mason-Dixon Line, and it almost never takes place in the workplace.

Everyone is hypersensitive there, and everyone is afraid of being accused of bigotry of some sort. I think that it's totally nonproductive that going into the 21st century, that black people, white people, brown people, white people in the workplace can't be honest and say when you mention something about immigration, or when you mention something about big lips or kinky hair, it raised the issue for me. Can we talk about it? There's no honesty. Therefore, there's no trust.

MARTIN: You think that we would do well to have more honest discussion about race and differences in the workplace or ethnicity and difference in the workplace?

Ms. EARP: I do. I do. And I think that the hope for our children for this next generation is that they will be more open and more honest, especially the generation that was born after the civil rights movement.

MARTIN: I think many people would want to have those conversations, but I think that there's this feeling that perhaps it creates tension in the workplace and it's best that everybody just focus on task. But what do you think?

Ms. EARP: My view is if it doesn't happen at work, where? It doesn't happen in our churches. Religion in America is very, very segregated. It often doesn't happen in our neighborhoods. It's not going to happen at home. Work is where we spend the majority of time. Work is where most of us are the most heavily invested. And other than love relationships with family, we have our strongest ties to coworkers and peers in the workplace. My view is if we can't develop some openness and honesty there, I'm not sure where it can take place.

MARTIN: Do you ever envision a time when your agency won't be needed?

Ms. EARP: No.

MARTIN: Really?

Ms. EARP: No. Because I think the human heart is such that it will always find a way to hurt another human being. And the most obvious are race and gender, those things. So I think there will always be a need for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

MARTIN: Well, come back and see us.

Ms. EARP: I will. Thank you.

MARTIN: Naomi Churchill Earp is the chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She was kind enough to join us here in our studio in Washington. Thank you so much for coming in.

Ms. EARP: Thank you.

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