WASHINGTON - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) yesterday heard testimony and recommendations from a variety of Arab, Muslim, Sikh, Middle Eastern, and South Asian groups on combating backlash discrimination against members of those communities in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
The EEOC chose this growing issue as the topic of the Commission's first meeting of the Bush administration and the first meeting presided over by new Chair Cari M. Dominguez. The Commission also heard testimony from employers and agency officials who oversee efforts to address backlash issues.
Chair Dominguez reiterated President Bush's pledge to "build a single nation of justice and opportunity" upon taking office. "Today," Dominguez said, "we advance that promise ... at a time when many are engaging in stereotyping. We caution employers not to take their cues from those who view people as members of groups rather than as individuals .... In today's anxiety-ridden environment, we urge employers to follow the law rather than turning reflexively to the stereotype of national origin or religion as a basis for employment decisions."
As of December 6 the EEOC had received 166 formal complaints of workplace discrimination specifically related to the September 11 attacks.
"Like most of your forefathers, I came to this country believing it to be the beacon for democracy, equality, and justice for all," said Ziad Asali of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). Asali presented a representative sample of the 115 cases of employment discrimination that the ADC has forwarded to the EEOC since 9/11, including discriminatory terminations, hostile work environments, ethnic slurs, and general harassment. Asali also pointed out the irony that many Americans mistrust Arab-Americans at the same time terrorists have reportedly been instructed not to trust them as collaborators because they have been assimilated as Americans, or, as Asali put it, "gone native." "ADC has enjoyed a very close working relationship with the EEOC," Asali said, citing examples of cooperation on disseminating information on employee rights to Arab-Americans.
National Association of Muslim Lawyers spokesman Arshad Majid also brought several examples of discrimination to the Commissioners' attention. "This unjust persecution has caused many faultless innocents in America to lose their livelihoods, their careers, their homes and in some cases, their lives," said Majid. "Their American dream has turned into a nightmare, where as a result of the criminal acts of persons they have never heard of nor had any connection to, they have nevertheless been forced from their jobs, labeled as criminals, and shunned from their professional communities for no perceptible reason other than the way they look, dress, speak, or worship."
Amardeep Singh of the Sikh Coalition said that many Americans "don't always see a fellow American" when they look at a Sikh. "Sadly, some Americans associate the turban, which is a mandatory article of faith in the Sikh religion, with terrorists such as Osama bin Laden," Singh said, pointing out that Sikhs have suffered backlash discrimination even though they are not Arab, Muslim, or Middle Eastern. Singh recounted examples of verbal harassment, unfair job terminations, and other discrimination, and stressed the importance of agency outreach to the Sikh community.
Thomas Korber of the pharmaceutical research company AstraZeneca said that the firm's top leadership made it clear to managers they must caution their employees against making stereotypic assumptions or comments, and reminded all employers that the company "will stand by its anti-harassment policy, and will not tolerate any violation of its provisions," as well as instructing workers to report any such violations.
Betty Bosak of TRW Space & Electronics recounted that company's outreach to Muslim employees to reassure them of TRW's commitment to a harassment-free workplace and that workers who experience harassment could and should report the incidents.
"We are all from somewhere else," said Jean AbiNader of the Arab American Institute, observing that this is "a source of American vitality." AbiNader called for more extensive coordination among federal, state, and local civil rights enforcement agencies.
The panelists and the Commissioners -- Chair Dominguez, Vice Chairman Paul M. Igasaki and Commissioner Paul Steven Miller -- discussed ways to augment communication and collaboration among the EEOC, businesses, and affected ethnic and religious communities to tackle this problem. Commissioners stressed the importance of the EEOC and other governmental civil rights agencies going out to the communities they protect to help overcome widespread reluctance of many members of affected communities to come forward with complaints of employment discrimination.
EEOC Detroit District Office Director James Neely, whose office represents the EEOC in the jurisdiction that has America's largest concentration of Arab-Americans, pointed out that staff officials are working with Arab and Muslim organizations in that area and have appeared on cable TV to inform those populations of their equal employment opportunity rights.
Alluding to the terrorist attacks that destroyed the EEOC's New York office, Ms. Dominguez said the assaults "remind us that the important things have not changed since September 11. The EEOC remains focused on its enduring mission: to ensure that working men and women have the freedom to compete without the barriers of unlawful discrimination and the indignities of illegal harassment."
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability. Further information about the Commission is available on the agency's Web site at www.eeoc.gov.
This page was last modified on December 12, 2001.
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