Wednesday, December 07, 2022

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A. Barriers to Empathic Consideration for Employees of Color


An examination of the relationship between the African-American community and the segment of society to which an overwhelming majority of corporate managers belong (most corporate directors and managers are white and male) illustrates the barriers that preclude empathic consideration for racial minorities. While the observations I make in this Essay apply to all racial minorities affected by corporate activity, I use the social realities relating to African Americans as a vivid example of empathic barriers. One force that helped create these barriers to empathy is the alarming fact that people of African descent are the subjects of almost daily news items relating to criminal activity. While it is indisputable that African Americans engage in criminal activity, these frequent portrayals of African-American criminality, coupled with the social reality of racial isolation and de facto segregation, may make it difficult for some white Americans and, most relevant to the thesis in this Essay, corporate managers, to empathize with African-American victims of racial discrimination. One of the most obvious and poignant examples of the racial isolation that separates black and white citizens is the de facto segregation in school systems resulting from de facto segregation in housing. Because black and white citizens lead such separate lives, it is easy to think of this racial minority as undeserving, dangerous, unlawful. They are not victims, they are predators. The sagas of the untruthful allegations of black criminality made by Charles Stuart and Susan Smith are two famous examples of the willingness of some whites to perceive citizens of African descent as perpetrators of heinous acts, not victims of discrimination or harmful untruths.


Frequent portrayals of African Americans as criminal affect every aspect of American life, including the workplace. "[E]ven middle-class blacks have to work consciously against [the] stereotype" of African-American criminality. There is also a legacy of inferiority that taints the collective reputation of African Americans. This legacy derives from the social construction of enslaved Africans as less than human. It was against the law to teach them how to read and write. Public and popular depictions of African Americans as "incompetent, shuffling, and dim-witted" persisted long after slavery ended. In theater and literature, people of African descent were depicted as "lazy, illiterate . . . sambos [who] spoke nonsense." Minstrel shows portrayed the formerly enslaved Africans as "inept . . . or child-like." Attacks on the intellectual acuity of African Americans continue today. One of the most recent examples is a book arguing that African Americans are genetically inferior to whites and Asians.


Negative societal messages about African Americans abound. These messages are internalized by many, and this affects even the professional reputation of African Americans. The fact that most negative beliefs about African Americans are held unconsciously does not lessen the harm to the collective reputation of Americans of African descent. African Americans are implicitly and explicitly stereotyped as criminal and unintelligent. These are characteristics that are obviously antithetical to corporate success, and, to the extent such stereotypes are unconsciously held by corporate managers, empathy for people of color who confront discriminatory employment practices is impossible.


The best example of the positive value of empathy for victims of discrimination is found by considering the woman's place in corporate life. This nation's legal and social discourse on sexual discrimination and harassment has been far more extensive and meaningful than that which has taken place regarding racial discrimination. Formal discussions of, and prohibitions against, racial discrimination lack the detail and clarity found in legal and corporate prohibitions against sexual harassment and discrimination. For example, in a treatise on the law relating to civil rights and employment discrimination, there is a section entitled "Sexual and Racial Harassment," describing problems in the workplace. Only a small part of the extensive discussion is devoted to racial discrimination. Almost every one of the cases cited relates to sexual discrimination or harassment. Only one of the cited cases clearly covers the problem of racial discrimination. Moreover, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has published several policy guides relating to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. I found no EEOC-published guidance on the problem of racial discrimination.


Corporate officers, directors, legislators, administrators, and even judges may more easily understand, and be able to empathize with, women professionals who allege gender discrimination. The stories told by women who are victims of discrimination may be similar to the stories of unfair treatment that these jurists and executives, most of whom are white, have heard told by their wives, sisters, daughters, and even mothers. Generally, jurists and corporate managers who are white will have fewer opportunities to hear personal accounts of discrimination told by people of color because they have no familial or other close personal relationship with people of color. Empathy for racial minorities, with whom there is no close personal relationship, is less likely. This may explain why sexual harassment policies in particular, and sexual discrimination law in general, are far more developed than policies and law relating to racial discrimination and harassment.

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