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Pigeonholing employees’ race can be tricky … and risky

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Exactly what is race? And who is a member of a protected class based on race? Does the color of one’s skin count more than the country of origin? Those are some of the questions a federal appeals court recently tackled.

Recent case: Parisima Abdullahi alleged that her employer fired her due to racial discrimination. But the trial court dismissed her case because Abdullahi had not checked “race” as the discrimination she had endured, but had instead checked the boxes for “national origin” and “religion” because she is a Muslim born in Iran. She appealed.

Because Abdullahi was suing under Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act, which says that “all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States shall have the same right … to make and enforce contracts … as is enjoyed by white citizens,” she had to convince the court she was a different race than white citizens. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated her lawsuit, reasoning that at the time the law was passed, even ethnic groups were referred to as separate races, such as the “German race.” Therefore, Abdullahi’s identification as Iranian and Muslim was enough to claim race discrimination even if Iranians are generally considered white. (Abdullahi v. Prada, No. 07-2489, 7th Cir., 2008)

Final note:
This case raised the possibility of many more “race” discrimination cases. Think about the self-reporting EEO forms your employees fill out and the many possible combinations. Just about anyone may have a race discrimination case these days.

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