Discrimination in the Workplace—Overt and Covert
The era since the election of Barack Obama has been heralded as “post-racial.” However, federal statistics on discrimination paint a much different picture. Instances of legal discrimination are often difficult to quantify but apparently are still common.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reported more than 35,000 claims of discrimination in 2010 alone. A recent study sponsored by the EEOC of over 200,000 large and midsize companies found that African-American professionals nationwide have a 30 percent chance of being discriminated against in the workforce. In the past decade, discrimination lawsuit payouts within Fortune 500 companies have gone as high as $192 million.
In a 2007 racial discrimination study by the EEOC, Dr. Marc Benedick wrote that some workplaces operate with an “underlying corporate culture [that] includes conscious racist attitudes and perception [as well as] deliberate adoption of policies” that put employees of color at a disadvantage. Even in the 21st-century corporate workplace, Benedick stated that “virulent racism is not dead.”
“Whether the causes are conscious or unconscious, active or passive,” Dr. Benedick wrote in the study, “the point is that the complained-about actions are typically neither isolated nor accidental. They are rooted in an employer world view and normal operating procedures reflecting that world view.”
Small Town Mindset
There remain perceptions that African Americans don’t belong in certain segments of society. Nelson blames the older generation, both white and black, for perpetuating these attitudes.
For whites, the view may be based on a prejudice against blacks that has been fostered over the years through national culture, local history and familial influence. For blacks, the mindset of inferiority may be a defensive mechanism created
during the era of segregation, only intensified with multiple personal experiences with outright racism and workplace discrimination.
“It’s hard to change a mindset that is so deeply ingrained, and the older generation passes it forward,” Nelson said. “I had to leave Pensacola before I truly understood that.”
Because of her light complexion, Nelson said that she felt employers viewed her as the “safe” black employee who could work with customers. Recalling that memory, Nelson spoke of an earlier experience working in a Pensacola restaurant.
“When I worked at the restaurant,” Nelson said, “I noticed all of the black people were in the kitchen. Everyone else—all the other black people—were in the kitchen.
“Because I was light-skinned, I was the only [African American] up front. I didn’t want to be the only one where I worked. I didn’t want to be the only one like me, so I left.”
“What’s Here for me?”
One person who is helping to reverse the trend of outward migration is Quincy Hull. Hull, who goes by his stage name “Q”, is a poet with several books and CDs under his belt. Q has toured the country extensively promoting his work and has recently relocated to Pensacola from the majority minority city of Memphis, Tenn. The first time Q visited Pensacola he was attracted to the water. “The beaches are beautiful,” said Q. “I felt like it was something I needed.”
Q was invited back to Pensacola a month later to participate in an anti-police brutality poetry reading at Movement for Change. Shortly afterwards, Q gave a reading at End of the Line Café and decided to move here.
Q said, “At the time, I was ready to leave Memphis and was looking for a change. We performed at End of the Line, and it gave me an opportunity to meet people that helped me move to the city.”
Though Q likes his new surroundings, he said Pensacola is a hard place to work and live for a professional African-American artist.
“There’s definitely a divided view between the white artist in Pensacola and the black artist,” Q said. “When a white [poet] says something on stage, it will often be accepted. When I’m saying something opposite to their experiences, it won’t be looked at the same. If your work is being looked at as different because of skin privilege; that means that we have a long way to go.”
Q observed that the general lack of entertainment catering to a black audience may partly explain the exodus of young professionals from this area.
“If I was a young, professional black person I would be asking, ‘What’s here for me?’” Q said.
“For an outsider like me, [Pensacola] is kind of a culture shock,” says Q. “Now I have a decent job, it’s a decent community, but what kind of music and plays are being brought here? What kind of entertainment does the city support? Are there performing acts that I want to see? These are the questions I ask myself,” he said.
“Right now, I don’t see that kind of entertainment here,” Q said. “I shouldn’t have to leave my city’s limits to see entertainment, especially in a city where we [blacks] are 30 percent [of the population]. It’s like, we’re here, but you don’t care. That’s how it feels sometimes.”
What is Lost
When talented professionals leave the area, “Pensacola loses out because of the great value that diversity provides in all aspects of a city,” said May, the D.C. attorney.
“I know African-American lawyers, doctors, teachers, accountants and other professionals that were born and raised in Pensacola and who would love to come back to their hometown,” May said. “But there are few opportunities for employment and almost no opportunities for growth in their professions.”
Carter believes that Pensacola loses the people that could mentor troubled youth and serve as an example to those who see little hope for their lives in Pensacola.
“Pensacola loses out because that’s one less positive role model/mentor that can help stop the violence, end racism, address topics that need improvement and be a voice for the people,” Carter said.
Nelson spoke of a friend in the medical profession who treats patients for free in Atlanta. According to Nelson, the friend works for free and provides pro bono work to people in her adopted community that need help, but cannot afford it.
“That work could be helping out people in her hometown of Pensacola,” Nelson said.
“Right now, [these professionals] are encouraging their communities to eat healthier and are giving free legal advice, for instance. These people could be helping to break that small-town mentality, but only if we can maintain our own right here. So far, that’s not happening.”
“If Black People Don’t Progress, Pensacola Doesn’t Progress.”
Some see the attitudes of indifference or open hostility to African Americans slowly changing and have ideas about how to make greater progress.
“I feel that Pensacola is growing into an environment of positivity for people of color, but needs to change the negative image [of African Americans] throughout the community,” Carter said.
To some extent, Nelson agrees.
“I think it’s getting better,” Nelson said. “I mean, I did get a return call. I did get an offer, even though it was at 54 percent lower pay than what I made doing the same thing in Atlanta.”
“The other side of that is that if you can surpass any racial barriers, you still have the economic hurdle,” she said. “That makes it increasingly hard to survive [in Pensacola].”
The combination of perceived racism in the workplace, lack of cultural opportunities for young people of color, and the general economic climate make Pensacola a hard sell for many former residents.
May insists that the “city has to take a clear stand on the importance of inclusion. The city will have to take the lead and be aggressive in its support of the value of diversity in the workplace.”
To help change this exodus of minority talent, “those who have access to resources will need to be willing to share those resources with individuals who are willing and have the capacity to perform,” May added.
For those interested in changing the trend of exodus from Pensacola, Q offered some advice: Anyone serious about correcting the situation must be prepared to start a dialogue.
“To leave black people behind is an old racist practice of Americans, and you don’t want to be associated with that past,” Q said.
“If all races, genders, and classes don’t move forward, then Pensacola doesn’t move forward. And if black people don’t progress, Pensacola doesn’t progress.”
Scott Satterwhite is a freelance writer and teaches writing at Pensacola State College.
Lauren Anzaldo contributed to this article.