By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/13/2008 9:24:47 PM ET 2008-01-14T02:24:47

Many of us are marveling at how seemingly far our society has come given a man with an African American heritage is being considered a serious candidate for president. But in the workplace, attitudes toward many black workers are anything but inspiring.

Racial harassment is up to record levels in offices and factories across the country, and we’re not talking just the use of the “N” word. Racist graffiti, Klu Klux Klan propaganda and even physical threats including the display of hangman’s nooses are included among the intimidation tools.

“It is shocking that such egregious and unlawful conduct toward African American employees is still occurring, even increasing, in the 21st century workplace, more than 40 years after enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964,” says David Grinberg, spokesman for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, also known as the EEOC.

Racial harassment cases have more than doubled since the early 1990s, hitting an all-time  high of 6,977 in 2007, according to EEOC data. (Blacks file nine out of 10 race harassment charges.) From fiscal 2000 to 2007, the EEOC received 51,000 racial harassment charge filings nationwide, already over the number received during the entire 1990s.

The big racial harassment payouts tend to get the headlines. Earlier this month, Lockheed Martin Corp. agreed to settle a case and pay $2.5 million to a black electrician who claimed he was harassed on a daily basis. He was threatened with lynching and once told: "If the South had won then this would be a better country."

But cases like this with smaller monetary penalties are numerous, although they may not get as much press coverage.

According to an EEOC lawsuit involving AK Steel settled last February, workers were allegedly subjected to Nazi symbols, nooses, KKK videos, and graffiti with messages to murder blacks. In January 2007, EEOC settled the racial harassment suit against the company for $600,000.

And in July 2006, Home Depot paid a $125,000 settlement in a suit that alleged, according to the EEOC,  "that a black former night crew lumberman/forklift operator was subjected to a racially hostile work environment because management condoned racial remarks by his supervisors who called him ‘black dog,’ ‘black boy.’” One manager even was charged with stating "that the Supreme Court had found black people to be ‘inferior.’"

These over-the-top acts at major corporations, probably have you scratching your head wondering what ever happened to diversity training, the endless videos on race-relations etiquette and human resource departments hell bent on weeding out such behavior.

Despite all these efforts that expanded greatly in the 1990s, hatred and ignorance apparently remain alive and well. There are a host of reasons racial harassment is escalating, according to labor experts, everything from a struggling economy that has caused major job insecurity to more people of color in the workplace, and even some blame violent video games.

"Acts of violence and hate have been glorified in some video games and through the Internet, as well as being perpetuated in the news and entertainment media," says the EEOC’s Grinberg. "Therefore, some people may have become desensitized, almost to the point of becoming immune, to inhumane behavior that leads to racially hostile work environments."

But whatever the reason, the bottom line for a worker who experiences such hostility is they are often stuck between a rock and a hard place when such bias occurs. Reporting such behavior often leads to retaliation, an increase in the harassment, or years of litigation, as happened in the recent Lockheed Martin case and employee Charles Daniels.

“I endured it way too long,” says Daniels about the harassment he suffered at the hands of four coworkers and one supervisor. He made several complaints to management but was told by an HR manager, of all people, that “boys will be boys.”

While we think of cases of harassment typically hit the rank and file, some legal experts have seen an uptick in black managers being harassed. Judy Broach, an attorney who represents workers, says she’s seen many black managers quit their jobs in disgust because of harassment.

“I think there is now a sense that it’s OK to display some degree of racial insensitivity" that wasn't OK ten years ago, she adds, because many people wrongly think the time is over for special treatment because “blacks have achieved so much. Companies are relaxing standards and we’re sliding backwards.”

The influx of Gen Yers may also be contributing to the rise in reporting of such harassment, surmises Steve Pemberton, Chief Diversity Officer for Monster.com. “The younger generation isn’t as tolerant as the baby boomers,” he explains.

Myrtle Bell, an associate professor of management for University of Texas at Arlington, says it’s all about the sluggish economy.

“The economy is much worse than it has been, so when times get tough people who feel entitled begin to feel things are being taken from them so they take it out on people whom they feel get things unjustly,” she explains.

In the case of Daniels from Lockheed Martin, he decided to take his issue to the EEOC and won. Raymond Cheung, the EEOC attorney who led the agency’s case, says, "To combat the harassment and threats faced by Mr. Daniels is at the heart of why the EEOC was created. Despite concerns of retaliation, this man had the courage to stand up and make public what happened to him, in an effort to ensure that it would not happen to anyone else.”

Alas, not everyone has the wherewithal to make such a journey, nor would his or her efforts be guaranteed to lead to such a victory. In fact, less than 20 percent of race complaints ever end up with some sort of monetary or work-related wins, says Bell.

So what’s a worker to do?

First off, find a place to work that you know is friendly to your race, gender or sexual preference. Bell says people searching for a job should do their homework beyond just what salary or benefits are offered. Talk to workers about their experiences at the company; check out social-networking sites like Facebook; and find out if the company has affinity groups, or programs for minorities.

This kind of research should be done on your own time before you send out your resume or at least before you go for the interview. Stay away from talking about affinity groups and the company’s treatment of race issues unless the hiring manager brings it up. Some hiring managers or recruiters, afraid of litigation, may take this as a sign you’re a troublemaker.

If you’re already in a job where harassment is taking place, use some logic to diffuse the situation.

Maybe you are dealing with a manager or coworker that isn’t aware how his or her words, or pictures on their desk offend you. Kerry Patterson, who co-authored “Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior,” says he sat in on a meeting recently where a manager from the South was referring to certain workers at “darkies.”

"A black colleague in the room said: ‘You know what, in lots of parts of country that’s an insulting term. I’d rather you not use that,’ and he said, ‘Ok,’" Patterson explained. “It didn’t go to court or end up in a fist fight.”

If common sense does not prevail or you just don’t want to confront the harasser, you should first find out if your employer has a protocol on how to handle these situations and follow it. Also, advises Bell, you have to document everything that happens and save any e-mails or notes that support your claims.

In cases where your boss is the harasser, you don’t go to your boss, or his or her supervisor. Head for the HR department and state your case, including a written account of what’s been happening.

There is always the EEOC if nothing comes out of your complaints. (Check out the EEOC’s Web site for how to file a charge.)

But if a court fight is not for you, Bell suggests you consider leaving your employer because years of harassment can do damage to your body and soul.

Unfortunately, Bell adds, this type of bias against blacks isn’t going away anytime soon because it’s engrained in our society.

And even though Barack Obama is showing such potential as a presidential contender, the way people view him may be part of the problem. "People refer to him as a black candidate. He’s just as much white as he is black," Bell points out. "That says a lot about race in America."

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