Subtle racism has no place in the workplace: Mary Mitchell

SHARE Subtle racism has no place in the workplace: Mary Mitchell

I love Chicago.

No matter what others say about it.

That’s one reason it pains me that some of the city’s most popular companies are being accused of discriminating against black workers.

OPINION

Last week, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused Gonnella Baking Co. of violating federal civil rights laws by failing to stop a pattern of disparaging comments about black employees at its facility in Aurora.

The alleged harassment included black employees being referred to as “you people,” derogatory comments such as “you people are lazy” and black employees being told, “I better watch my wallet around you,” according to the EEOC.

The comments might seem harmless. But this is the kind of subtle racism that has no place in the workplace in 2015.

Black people have the right to go to work, do their jobs and go home without having to put up with derogatory comments based on stereotypes.

“Employers who know about discriminatory harassment of their employees are responsible for stopping it,” John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago said in announcing the charges. “The EEOC will hold employers accountable for that misconduct.”

Tom Marcucci, director of marketing for Gonnella Baking Co., said the company will “vigorously” defend itself.

“It is an unfortunate situation,” Marcucci said. “We have done everything — put in policies and procedures —to ensure that everybody is treated with respect. Simply put, we are very disappointed that the lawsuit was filed.”

In 2010, the company agreed to pay $350,000 to settle another EEOC harassment and retaliation suit involving the same Aurora facility. The federal agency had accused the company of tolerating a manager’s harassment of Mexican employees. Beside a monetary settlement, Gonnella was subjected to a four-year consent decree.

Gonnella isn’t the only well-known Chicago company being accused of running afoul of civil rights laws.

In 2013, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against the popular Rosebud Italian restaurant chain, saying Rosebud restaurants in Chicago and the suburbs violated civil rights laws by refusing to hire African-Americans because of race.

“At the time the EEOC began examining Rosebud’s hiring practices, most of its restaurants had no black employees at all,” John Rowe, the agency’s Chicago district director, said at the time. “In most of them, we were looking at what we call the ‘inexorable zero’ situations, where the absence of any African-Americans makes it unlikely this was caused by chance. Those are almost always the result of strong racial bias.”

In response to the lawsuit, the Rosebud Restaurant group said it “does not tolerate discrimination toward employees and applicants.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people elsewhere still believe we are one of the most segregated cities in the nation even as Mayor Rahm Emanuel works diligently to paint Chicago as a city that is welcoming to all.

But when the EEOC has to step in and sue high-profile companies like Rosebud Restaurants and Gonnella Baking Co. for allegedly violating the basic civil rights of non-whites, it doesn’t help with that mission.

At this point in history, it’s disappointing that the EEOC has to sue to ensure that all of us —regardless of ethnicity — are treated with respect in the workplace.

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