Nooses In Offices: An Unnerving Trend Leads To Worker Lawsuits, Big Payouts
Soon after Keith Smith started his temp job at the Virginia Department of Transportation last November, he saw a noose hanging behind a supervisor's desk. Three weeks later, he saw a second noose attached to the wall behind another supervisor. Then he quit.
"I feared for my life," Smith told TV station WSLS. The Virginia Department of Transportation said the people involved were disciplined, but Smith still filed a lawsuit.
Earlier this year in New Jersey, three black employees at a New Jersey Siemens manufacturing plant, Barry Murphy, Solomon Daniels and Eddie Clarke, complained to management that they felt passed over for opportunities. Soon after, they went into a locker room and found a noose dangling from a shower stall (pictured above), reports the Times of Trenton.
"I felt though a clear message was being sent to the black employees at Siemens to shut up, do what your [sic] told and stop complaining about being treated unfairly or we would be lynched," Daniels wrote in an affidavit.
Siemens said it couldn't find the culprit, but it attached the company's anti-harassment policy to everyone's next paycheck.
Nooses -- that potent symbol of lynchings and racial oppression -- are appearing in offices around the country. It's hard to know exactly how many workers have been affected, but it's been a disturbing fact of office life in recent years. Since 2001, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says it has filed 30 cases in federal court alleging racial harassment involving nooses. Most lawsuits, though, are settled privately and never go through the EEOC.
In June 2010, the City of Springfield, for instance, paid out $225,000 to Mike Williams after the water works operator reported that he'd found nooses twice in his workplace a year earlier.
"I don't know if you can fathom the feeling and the threat and the pain that I felt," Williams told the Springfield City Council.
A white employee who had hung one of the nooses claimed that the looped rope was simply "a trick of knot-tying," with "no malice behind it." He associated it with cowboys, Indians and criminals and, "didn't think of it as a racial thing." He and another white worker were suspended without pay for 60 days, reported The State Journal Register.
Just this February, a Southern supplier of concrete and cement products reportedly paid out $400,000 to seven black employees who claimed a noose was hung at their worksite, and that co-workers threw around racial epithets and Ku Klux Klan references.
Between 2007 and 2009, the organization Diversity Inc. recorded 46 separate displays of nooses at workplaces. But the group relied on media reports to come up with this number, and only a fraction of noose incidents likely catch the attention of a journalist.
Civil rights groups, however, have taken note of the trend.
"Sadly, hangman's nooses have appeared with alarming frequency at factories, universities, and other public and private places across the country," Lillian Bowie, a director in the economic department of the NAACP, said via email.
An Unexplained Trend
The noose was first identified publicly as a workplace issue in 2000. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's then-chair, speaking at a NAACP conference, lamented that the agency was handling more than two dozen racial harassment cases involving nooses at work.
There was a brief spike in 2006, as a result of the Jena Six controversy. Some high school students hung nooses from a tree at their Jena, La., school, and a group of black students beat up a white student. After six black students were charged with attempted murder in the beating, there was a civil rights march of some 20,000, and a man who hung two nooses from his car was charged with inciting a riot.
As many as 50 copycat noose incidents were reported in the following two months, including one at a Home Depot construction site outside Chicago.
While the national media attention's focus on nooses died down after, the noose remained an almost routine occurrence in some workplaces. At the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest regional planning agency of the federal government, for instance, there have been five reported noose incidents in just the last four years, reports the Knoxville News Sentinel.
The Noose Inspires Fear
To understand why the noose could inspire a worker, like Smith, to quit his job in 2012, you have to look at U.S. history. Between 1882 and 1901, an African-American was lynched every two or three days. The country didn't go for a year without a reported lynching until 1952.
Throughout this period, black Americans risked ritual torture and murder if they stepped out of line, for example by voting, going to school, running a business in competition with whites, not giving right of way in a carriage, not speaking deferentially enough, or having a consensual romantic relationship with a white person. Lynchings were often joyful community affairs, akin to a Fourth of July barbecue.
These days, nooses often appear in workplaces after a black employee has complained of unfair treatment. One of the Siemens workers in New Jersey, Eddie Clarke, claimed that before he and his co-workers found the noose, someone had messed with a machine so that it ripped through Clarke's pants and skin. A supervisor allegedly then remarked that he was surprised that Clarke was "still alive" and told him that if he complained of discrimination he'd be caught in "friendly fire."
Last year, Gregory Seabrook, an electrician for the New York Fire Department for nearly two decades, said that he found a nearly 3-foot-long noose in his locker, reported the New York Daily News. A couple months before, Seabrook had filed a race discrimination complaint with the New York State Division of Human Rights, along with four other electricians, alleging that the fire department overlooked minorities for opportunities. (A city spokesperson told WCBS in New York that the FDNY "investigates all allegations of discrimination.")
Mirlin Toomer, who won numerous awards for her work at the U.S. Department of Defense, complained to her supervisor about an incident that she considered racial harassment, when a co-worker allegedly stood behind her with a pair of scissors, threatened to cut her wig, and joked about whether the hair would grow back. Then last December, she found a stuffed ape on her desk, with a noose around its neck.
In general, the number of race-based harassment charges filed with the EEOC has soared over the last three decades. Last year, the agency received 8,776 complaints, compared to 6,712 a decade ago. And no one knows why.
It could be that younger people, born after the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, aren't as sensitive to the history and current struggles of black workers. Or it could be a backlash against affirmative action programs and diversity training.
Or it could be the strange and hiccuping way that progress works. Lynching began after the passage of the 13th Amendment, which officially brought an end to centuries of slavery; it was a powerful way to keep black Americans down, just as they emerged as free individuals. And nooses only began to make frequent appearances in workplaces after the era of lynchings ended. The last known Ku Klux Klan lynching was 31 years ago.
Nooses As A Form Of Discrimination
A noose alone isn't usually sufficient evidence of employment discrimination; it needs to be accompanied by other racially biased practices to be considered "hate speech" or a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While North Carolina, New York, Louisiana and California passed laws explicitly banning the public display of nooses over the last couple years, these laws also stipulate that there must be an "intent to intimidate."
For a harassment suit to succeed, the plaintiff has to show that supervisors didn't do enough in response to the problem. A few years back, Tremeyne Porter lost his suit for exactly this reason. In 2004, Porter saw a noose made of white nylon rope hanging from a piece of machinery at the Rochelle, Ill., facility of Erie Foods. His supervisor had the noose taken down and tacked it to the bulletin board.
Around this time, a co-worker showed a noose to Porter and other employees, and told Porter that if he showed anyone he would "look for him."
The court ultimately found that Porter's supervisors had responded promptly to the incidents, trying to find out who was responsible, and reminding employees of anti-discrimination rules. The judge did say, however, that the supervisor's decision to hang the noose on the bulletin board was "ill-advised."
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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