Backlash against Muslims, Arabs lingers after 9/11

By Pamela Babcock Sep 5, 2006

A rental car company employee was told she couldn’t wear a head scarf during Ramadan, then was fired for complaining. Hotel employees were cursed at and nicknamed “Osama” and “Taliban.”

And a restaurant co-owner openly told a manager of Egyptian ancestry he could “pass for Hispanic” and should change his name to “something Latin.” The manager was later fired.

Among the many ramifications of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States has been heightened prejudice and discrimination against Muslims and Arabs—and anyone perceived as a member of those groups.

Nearly five years after the attacks, four out of 10 Americans admitted they harbor negative feelings or prejudices against people of the Muslim faith living in the United States, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll of 1,007 adults released Aug. 9. Thirty-nine percent admitted feeling at least some prejudice against Muslims, and a third believed U.S. Muslims were sympathetic to al-Qaeda, according to the poll, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

That level of mistrust may not be as evident in the workplace, according to a survey of Society for Human Resource Management members in early August. The majority (75 percent) of 368 U.S. HR professionals who responded thought negative attitudes toward Muslim employees have stayed the same since Sept. 11, while 16 percent thought they’ve increased, and 9 percent thought they’ve decreased. Nevertheless, just under half (45 percent) said their organizations incorporated material in diversity training or other programs to promote a greater understanding of other religions and cultures after Sept. 11.

Continuing concern

In the year after Sept. 11, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Washington, D.C.,“ saw a large spike in these backlash discrimination charges” against Muslim and Arab employees and those perceived as such, said spokesman David Grinberg. “However, since that one-year period, those charge filings have slowed considerably and declined in frequency.”

Grinberg emphasized that although backlash filings have declined, the EEOC still takes all discrimination charges seriously and closely examines each charge filed. He said that in the post-Sept. 11 climate, “the charge data may just be the tip of the iceberg” because some employees may fear approaching the government or employer retaliation.

“It takes a lot for people to come to the EEOC and file a charge of discrimination,” Grinberg said. “People usually do it as a last resort. There’s often an emotional toll on a person who has to recount the experience."

“It’s very important for HR professionals to understand that there are lingering effects of Sept. 11 and backlash discrimination is still occurring in the workplace today,” said Elizabeth Grossman, the EEOC’s New York regional attorney.

Grinberg cautions that because of world events, backlash discrimination charges could spike again.

Lema Bashir, a legal advisor with the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Washington, D.C., said the group sees spikes in employment discrimination not only after events such as Sept. 11 but also when violence occurs in the Middle East, inflammatory stories appear in the media or even certain movies gain popularity.

Such fears renewed after the Aug. 10 arrests of 21 individuals in the United Kingdom for allegedly plotting to use liquid explosives to blow up airplanes flying to the United States. The Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, D.C., for instance, advised local Muslim communities to step up security measures at mosques and other Islamic institutions, and it urged local law enforcement agencies to work with Muslim leaders to deter hate crimes.

In the years since the Sept. 11 attacks, Bashir said, the types of complaints filed with the ADC have changed.

“The more common types of employment discrimination reported immediately after Sept. 11 were verbal and physical harassment, and termination because of race, religion or national origin,” Bashir said.

In one case, an Arab-American pilot was subjected to numerous ethnic slurs and interrogated repeatedly by his employer about an imagined connection with the Sept. 11 hijackings. “His employer even went so far as to hire a private investigator to watch him.”

But today, discrimination isn’t as overt and can “easily be missed by some employees and their employers,” she said. One Iraqi American recently contacted the ADC after his employer refused to pay medical expenses for a serious illness that should have been covered by his health insurance. He later learned that a similar illness was covered for a non-Arab co-worker with the same job and tenure, Bashir said.

The initial backlash

The rush of filings after Sept. 11 didn’t surprise Grossman, who said “people who were incredibly biased seemed to take out their concerns on their employees right away.”

After the attacks, then-EEOC Chair Cari M. Dominguez called on employers to guard against workplace discrimination based on national origin or religion. “We launched a national outreach and education campaign, which included coordination with the departments of Justice and Labor,” Grinberg said.

The EEOC defined a new “Code Z” to track charges filed specifically by people who are—or are perceived to be—Arab, Muslim, Middle-Eastern, South Asian or Sikh.

As of June 11, 2006, 991 charges had been filed under Title VII alleging post-Sept. 11 backlash employment discrimination, according to the EEOC. Discharge is an issue in 591, and harassment in 416. (Some charges allege multiple types of discrimination.) Twelve cases were still open.

Of the 979 charges resolved, 595 (61 percent) were closed with “no-cause findings.” Ninety-eight (10 percent) were issued a right-to-sue letter, while 135 (14 percent) were settled, withdrawn with benefits for the charging party or conciliated. The remainder were closed or not pursued for various procedural or jurisdictional reasons.

As of June 11, 2006, the EEOC said, 148 employees aggrieved by Sept. 11 backlash discrimination have received more than $4 million through the agency’s administrative efforts, and 19 individuals received another $1.15 million after filing eight separate federal lawsuits.

Training a focus

In the majority of cases the EEOC settles, it requires additional employer training.

“In New York, we did training in 100 percent of the cases, and it’s almost always in every consent decree,” Grossman said. “We negotiate our consent decrees on a case-by-case basis. Most employers are willing to work with us to put mechanisms in place to prevent future discrimination.”

For example, in August 2003 the EEOC in New York sued kitchen cabinet designer Poggenpohl U.S. Inc. for creating and maintaining a hostile work environment for a Muslim employee of Egyptian origin and then firing her. In June 2004, the EEOC announced a monetary settlement and consent decree requiring Poggenpohl to provide employees anti-discrimination training and revise its anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies significantly. In addition, it called for appointment of an HR officer to handle discrimination complaints.

If Code Z charges have declined since Sept. 11, does that mean America's workplaces have become more tolerant through diversity training?

“There was some overreaction [after Sept. 11], and there has been some education and some outreach, along with a desire on the part of people to understand the world around them in a more global context,” Grossman said.

“I think there has been progress. But this country has a long way to go in regard to tolerance and understanding.”

Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer in the New York City area.

Editors Note: This article should not be construed as legal advice.

For more newsas well as recent developments in other states, visit State Workplace Law News on SHRM Online.

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