Racial Discrimination Laws: Understanding your Rights

Doug Mann

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Table of Contents
  1. Less Obvious Forms of Racial Discrimination 
  2. Disparate Treatment vs Disparate Impact
  3. Legal Elements of a Racial Discrimination Claim
  4. Examples of Racial Discrimination
  5. Filing a Claim: Eligibility
  6. What to Do If You Suffered Racial Discrimination in the Workplace

Racial discrimination occurs when people treat you differently based on your actual or perceived race. Racial discrimination also includes discrimination based upon your skin color, facial features, hair texture, and other physical characteristics that are associated with racial differences. This discriminatory treatment generally arises from racial stereotypes and assumptions about the traits of members of your racial group.

Someone who discriminates against you cannot exonerate themselves by noting that they are from the same race as you are. Likewise, someone who discriminates against you cannot exonerate themselves by noting that you are a member of a racial majority. Racial discrimination law prohibits anyone from discriminating against anyone else based on race. 

Less Obvious Forms of Racial Discrimination 

The legal definition of racial discrimination includes more than just discrimination based on physical features. It also includes treating you differently because of your:

  • association or friendship with members of another race;
  • marriage to someone of a different race;
  • membership in or association with ethnic-based organizations or groups;
  • attendance or participation in schools, places of worship, or other institutions that are associated with certain minority groups; and
  • participation in cultural practices that are associated with a particular minority group, such as ways of dressing or speaking.

Discrimination based on any of the foregoing characteristics and practices is not considered inappropriate if they would substantially interfere with your ability to perform your job duties. When hiring an actor to play Mahatma Gandhi, for example, it would probably be appropriate to exclude from consideration any actor whose racial features would not lend themselves to a convincing portrayal of Mr. Gandhi.

Disparate Treatment vs Disparate Impact

There are two broad types of racial discrimination:

  • Disparate treatment: Disparate treatment occurs when you are intentionally treated differently because of your race. Examples include refusing to hire or promote you, setting special work rules that don’t apply to employees of other races, and harassing you because of your race.
  • Disparate impact: Disparate impact occurs when an apparently neutral workplace rule or practice disadvantages one race more than another. A rule that requires men to be clean-shaven, for example, could disadvantage an Islamic employee.

The key difference between disparate treatment and disparate impact is intent. If you file a disparate treatment claim, you must prove that the discrimination you suffered was intentional. If you file a disparate impact claim, you need not prove intentional discrimination. Even unintentional discrimination can support a disparate impact claim. You must, however, prove a real and unjustified discriminatory impact.

When you file a civil claim, you must prove each of the legal elements of that claim by a “preponderance of the evidence” (about 51% certainty) in order to win the lawsuit. A racial discrimination claim has four legal elements that you must prove:

  • You are a member of a “protected class” (race, religion, ethnicity, etc.). Since everyone has a racial identification, in the case of racial discrimination, everyone is a member of a protected class.
  • You are performing your job adequately, or you are qualified for the job (if you are an applicant).
  • Your employer denied you an employment-related benefit, or subjected you to a negative employment-related consequence (including harassment) that  someone else benefited from.
  • Whoever benefited at your expense was from a different race than you, or nobody has yet benefited  at your expense but your employer is still seeking “qualified” applicants.

These elements can be difficult to prove in court under certain circumstances. Nevertheless, your employer might agree to a private settlement to avoid bad publicity. 

Examples of Racial Discrimination

Following are some common examples of racial discrimination at work:

  • Your employer physically segregates you from co-workers of a different race, even though you perform the same duties.
  • A potential employer tells you that your job application was refused because of your “accent.” Note: This form of discrimination might be appropriate if, for example, you applied for a position as an ESL teacher. 
  • You apply for a job as an accountant after passing an English language qualifying exam. Your prospective employer nevertheless rejects your application because you are not a native speaker of English.
  • Your hair is naturally curly because of your race, and your employer tells you that you must straighten your hair because of a new company grooming policy. 

Thousands of more examples are possible. The number of ways that an employer might discriminate is nearly infinite.

Filing a Claim: Eligibility

As long as your employer employs at least 15 people, you can file a racial discrimination claim under both federal law (Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) and Ohio law (the Ohio Fair Employment Practices Law). If your employer employs between 4 and 14 people, you can file a claim under Ohio law but not federal law. If your employer employs fewer than 4 people, you cannot file a claim under either statute. although other legal remedies might be available.

What to Do If You Suffered Racial Discrimination in the Workplace

Once you suspect racial discrimination, take the following steps as soon as you can.

  • Gather all documentation that might support your claim, including online resources such as emails.
  • Locate potential witnesses and collect contact details. Your co-workers are a rich source of potential witnesses.
  • Record a complete timeline of events, and specify the exact reasons why you believe your employer discriminated against you. Your reasons should be based on the events that occurred plus a reasonable interpretation of the law.
  • Discover and identify co-workers of a different race who received better treatment than you for no legitimate reason. 
  • Describe and record actions that your employer or prospective employer took that don’t make sense unless the motive was racial discrimination.
  • Submit a formal complaint to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. If you are filing complaints under both state and federal law, file with either of the above entities and ask them to help you cross-file with the other agency. If you file under federal and state law, the two agencies will cooperate in resolving your claim.
  • Wait for the two agencies to send you “Right to Sue” letters. Only if you receive these letters can you file a lawsuit in court against your employer. If the agencies decide to act on your complaint on their own, you will not receive a “Right to Sue” letter.

Above all, contact a skilled Ohio racial discrimination lawyer to help you with your claim! Your choice of which law firm to use might just turn out to be the most important decision you make in the entire claim process. Get in touch with us today to see how we can help you.

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