Meeting of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
"Employment Discrimination in the Aftermath of September 11"
December 11, 2001
Thank you, Madam Chair. This is our Chair's first meeting and I wanted to welcome her to the Commission. She has been at the helm of the agency for a number of months now and she is off to a very promising start. I look forward to working with her and our other new colleagues when they arrive.
I want to thank Chair Dominguez for calling this meeting. Today's subject is a very important one, and one that is very personal to me as well.
Sixty years ago last Friday, America was stunned after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. The nation was shocked by an attack that was unprecedented, something that had never been done before. Our sense of national security was shattered. Almost immediately, however, a nightmare began for those Americans who "looked like the enemy." For all too many, their anger turned to hate and sought an enemy that was closer and more vulnerable. Japanese American families were terrorized in their homes, farms and businesses by shots and bombs. Japanese Americans were attacked, lost their jobs or were harassed. Chinese Americans also faced scapegoating as hate is not a rational emotion. There were calls for revenge and initial pleas for tolerance gave way quickly to the roundup of community leaders and then the entire community on the West Coast. It is a road that we must not travel again.
My mother's family owned a small truck farm near San Diego. After Pearl Harbor, they experienced harassment in town and at school. My grandparents had been in the U.S. for almost a half century, and like most immigrants they were proud and loyal Americans, though they were prevented from becoming naturalized citizens due to their race. One day the FBI showed up at their home. Without warning, warrant or explanation they took my grandfather into custody. My teenage aunt was home from school sick that day and she tried, needless to say unsuccessfully, to prevent the agent from hauling my grandfather away. My grandfather was a kind and gentle man, he went quietly certain that his adopted country would exonerate him from whatever crime they thought he may have committed. His family would not know where he was, what his condition was or why he had been taken for several months. They relied on community rumor, knowing that others had been arrested for no apparent reason. In a family with eight young girls and a mother who spoke little English my grandfather's absence was very hard. Of course, running the farm was a lost cause. And then, with the relocation orders, they had two weeks to give up the farm and nearly all of their property. Only in the horse stall that the family shared in the relocation center at Santa Anita Racetrack did they find out that my grandfather was arrested because he was the Secretary of the local Celery Growers Association and because he had taken some notes of their meetings in Japanese. He was sent to a series of Justice Department facilities, lastly in Santa Fe. He finally joined the family for the journey to the more permanent concentration camp in Poston, Arizona where they were held for the duration of the war.
His story is not unique. I know of many that worked for companies or the government that lost their jobs. My father in law, already an Army volunteer, found himself placed under guard. Their place in American society was ultimately sacrificed to satisfy the fears and the anger of the other Americans. Of course, there were no incidents of espionage or even of disloyalty by Japanese Americans. But my family and my community know that America's freedoms, and ultimately America itself, will survive only if we protect those rights with constant vigilance. If any group in this country is not treated fairly and with due process, all of us lose those rights.
Following the brutal attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon three months ago today, our sense of safety was also shattered. It is no surprise that Japanese Americans, and others familiar with our history, were immediately concerned about the scapegoating of Arab and Muslim Americans and, indeed, anyone perceived as such, including Sikh and Indian Americans and even Hispanics. Indeed, this type of backlash took place during the Iranian hostage crisis, the Gulf War and even the bombing in Oklahoma City a few years ago. Following the tragedies of September eleventh, civil rights groups have catalogued well over a thousand incidents ranging from hate crimes to workplace harassment. The hate crimes have dropped off, but community groups see other incidents, including job discrimination as still a serious problem.
You can tell that something is threatening when the children are affected. My six year old was naturally upset when her classmates told her that people with beards were bad. Of course, she stood up for her Daddy (whose secular beard is legally unprotected). I told her to tell them that Santa Claus won't be happy to hear them saying that. Seriously, one of her friends is a year younger than her and is Sikh. My daughter's friend is very concerned about negative feelings some seem to have towards those who wear turbans, as does her father. Usually, children that young aren't drawn into prejudice, but these are not ordinary times. We have got to be clear what is understandable anger and what is misdirected and hurtful prejudice.
President Bush, speaking at the American Islamic Center, reiterated what all Americans should know; namely that the terrorist acts of September eleventh were not the acts of a religion or an ethnic group. Any response to terrorism must not target Arabs or Moslems as a group. While the terrorists may define the conflict as a religious war, we must not accept their view. This nation is defined by our diversity. Venting one's anger at fellow Americans is an attack on our nation itself, our unity and our values.
Of course we must not lose sight of the fact that most Americans have not sought revenge against Arab or Moslem Americans. Many have shown solidarity and support for the Arab American communities around the nation. Most employers have responded admirably as well. But it does not take a majority to commit a hate crime, nor does it take a vote to harass a fellow worker.
The EEOC is responsible for job discrimination and it is very much a part of this nation's response to this crisis. The Commission must ensure that our laws in this area are enforced. As our Chair, along with our government partners, has indicated, we will respond to reports of discrimination as a high priority. I have met with affected communities here on the East Coast, in the Midwest, in the Southwest and in the Northwest. Arab Americans and Indian Americans, particularly Sikhs, have reported significant and troubling incidents of discrimination. Some report job dismissals; we have seen allegations of this in the media as well. More of the backlash complaints received by the EEOC allege discriminatory terminations than any other form of discrimination. One professional told me that he was fired shortly after an information gathering visit by federal officers to his company. Others report harassment, ranging from physical attacks to threatening e-mails or graffiti. Still others note changed rules or conditions. I was on a radio call in show and a woman alleged that her husband's workplace allowed use of languages other than English, but after September eleventh, use of Arabic was prohibited. Others have complained that clothing or beards required by religious practice have been restricted after September eleventh. Sikhs, particularly, given the religious requirement that men wear turbans and beards, have faced discrimination of this kind. In some cases, it is alleged that Arab Americans, or those perceived to be Arabic or Muslim, have been shifted into less visible jobs. Job dismissals and adverse transfers as well as demands to shave or cease wearing religious clothing may be related to customer preference, but this does not provide an excuse for discrimination. The Wall Street Journal reports, as do many I met with, that Arab Americans, Muslims, and those perceived to be Arab American or Muslim have experienced hostile atmospheres either among co-workers, customers or at conferences.
Community groups have also complained, as have many individuals with whom I have met, that job hunting has become substantially more difficult. It has always been hard to know when job discrimination occurs in hiring or recruitment. Applicants who feel that they have been subjected to discrimination rarely have enough information to bring a claim of discrimination. But many of the applicants have said they went from having regular opportunities for jobs or job interviews to getting few, if any, opportunities for jobs or job interviews following September eleventh. Whether a violation can be proven, it is still illegal to discriminate based on national origin or religion.
Based upon the cases reported by community organizations, such as the American Arab Anti Discrimination Committee and the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, it is clear that many are not reporting discrimination that they believe has occurred. Most of those with whom I spoke said that they will not file formal charges.
While many Arab and Indian Americans are longstanding American residents or citizens, most are immigrants to this country. Immigrant Americans are often reluctant to file formal discrimination charges. There are sometimes language or cultural barriers, and often people do not know about their rights. A legal system that is intimidating to most is all the more so to someone who is less familiar with it and perhaps less confident of their fair treatment. There is often distrust of government, and this is more common at a time such as this, with fears of ethnic profiling or of limits on one's legal rights.
With few coming forward, we urge employers to reiterate their corporate values in favor of diversity and against discrimination. We are eager to work with companies that want to put on training or other outreach to reduce tension and discrimination. We are eager to share any creative or successful programs in this difficult time. Over this past week, attorneys have reported concern to us over how to cooperate with government security investigations without being accused of ethnic or religious discrimination. These are real concerns and we must work with employers to help resolve them.
Other immigrant groups prior to September eleventh, including Hispanic and Asian Americans, have also been reticent to file charges. But while few come forward, some must if we are to have the deterrent effect that a law enforcement agency must have. Waiting for people to come to us is simply not enough. We have found that aggressive outreach has been necessary. Multilingual brochures, close cooperation with community organizations that are trusted, presentations and taking charges at community locations have all been necessary. We have needed to act based on reports in the media or by community groups and, when necessary, to utilize Commissioner charges and third party charges to proceed with investigations. We have issued a guidance that explains that our employment discrimination laws protect all workers, irrespective of immigration status. With this effort, we have found some cases and had an impact on discrimination. For example, such efforts have enabled us, for the first time, to bring cases to protect farm workers against sexual harassment. These methods are being used also to respond to the post September eleventh backlash, and we need the community's cooperation to do what is necessary. We must build trust to be effective.
Our values of due process and equal protection are only meaningful if they work in the toughest times, to protect Americans that may be the least popular at a given point in history. During World War II, that was my family. Today, they are Arab and Muslim Americans and others perceived to be so. Our national interest must be one of justice, not hate; of unity, not prejudice; and of the rule of law, not revenge.
This page was last modified on December 18, 2001.
Return to Home Page