Racial Discrimination Law

Racial discrimination is an action that is based upon any immutable racial characteristic, including skin, eye or hair color, and certain facial features. Racial discrimination in the workplace is prohibited by federal law and by state civil rights laws.

Federal law provides remedies for discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a law that applies to employers with fifteen or more employees. Among other protections, under Title VII, employers may not intentionally use race, skin color, or national origin as the basis for decisions relating to almost any aspect of the employment relationship.

The employees of smaller employers are often protected by similar state anti–discrimination laws.

If you believe you have been subjected to discrimination due to your race, you may be able to secure relief under state or federal law.

What Acts Constitute Racial Discrimination

A racial discrimination claim may be based upon:

  • Disparate Treatment – The employee is subject to discrimination because of race, ethnicity, skin color, or a similar characteristic.

  • Disparate Impact – Although the employer may not intend to discriminate, the employer's policies adversely affect employees on the basis of race, ethnicity, skin color, or a similar characteristic.

Discrimination may occur at any stage of employment, from the initial hiring decision through the date employment is terminated. Beyond the improper consideration of race to deny a job to an applicant, discrimination may occur in relation to promotions, raises, provision of employee benefits or leaves of absence, assignment of work, and in layoffs, dismissals and termination.

How is Racial Discrimination Proved

Under a typical anti–discrimination law, the plaintiff must prove the following:

  • The plaintiff was a member of a protected class – that is, the person is a member of a protected group, or is perceived as or believed to be a member of that group;

  • The plaintiff was qualified for the job for which he or she applied, or that he or she was meeting the employer's legitimate job expectations at the time of disparate treatment, discipline or termination of employment;

  • The plaintiff was not hired or was not promoted by the employer, and that somebody outside of the protected class was instead hired or promoted, or the plaintiff was fired and replaced by somebody outside of the protected class;

  • The circumstances of the employer's hiring, promotion or termination decision give rise to a reasonable inference of discrimination;

  • The employer's nondiscriminatory explanation for its actions was a mere pretext for racial discrimination – that is, it is a false explanation meant to make its discriminatory action appear to be legitimate.

Examples of Racial Discrimination

Examples of racial discrimination include:

  • Harassment or discrimination on the basis of race or color, including offensive comments or jokes, or other statements or conduct based on race or color that create an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or interfere with the employee's work performance.

  • Classification of employees, such that employees of particular races, ethnicities or skin colors are isolated from other employees, from customer contact, or are relegated to certain jobs or positions.

  • Assignment of employees of a particular race, color or ethnicity to particular establishments or geographic areas, instead of treating them equally across all of the employer's operations.

Title VII also protects employees who file discrimination charges from retaliation. That is, if an employee is participating in an investigation or litigation associated with a complaint of racial discrimination, or who is testifying in related proceedings, the employer is prohibited from taking action against the employee for that participation. State anti-discrimination laws contain similar provisions. It is possible for a complainant to lose a racial discrimination claim, but still win a judgment against an employer on the basis of retaliation.

Certain employer conduct will raise questions about the employer's intentions, and may suggest discriminatory motives. For example, if an employer makes pre–employment inquiries that appear to be designed to determine a job candidate's racial background, that conduct raises the concern that the information will be used in the hiring decision. If an employer that employs few minorities engages in conduct of that nature, the conduct may serve as evidence of discriminatory hiring practices.

How to File a Discrimination Complaint

Before you can file a lawsuit based upon racial discrimination, you must ordinarily first file a complaint about the conduct with an administrative agency. For a federal complaint, the complaint is first filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Most states have their own labor or equal opportunity agencies to which complaints may be made under state law. In states that do not have their own agency, a complaint may be made with the federal EEOC.

Once you make your report, the agency may accept your case and prosecute your discrimination claim on your behalf. If the agency does not act within a specific timeframe, or declines to act on your behalf, the agency will issue a "right to sue" letter and you may file a private lawsuit.

If you believe that your employer is engaging in racial discrimination, you will normally benefit from consulting a lawyer who handles employment discrimination cases. A lawyer can help you find and preserve evidence of discrimination, assist with the filing of an EEOC complaint, and negotiate with the employer, and avoid mistakes that could undermine your case.

Copyright © 2003 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 6, 2018.