Title VII’s discrimination prohibitions include actions taken against white employees based on their race. Last month in an unusual, unpublished decision, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that reverse discrimination protections do not include alleged harassment based on an employee’s relation to a racist father.
In Byrnes v. City of Hattiesburg, the plaintiff was the only white member of a largely African-American city department. He alleged that he was harassed by a black coworker based on his race. The claimed harassment included threats against him based on his father’s allegedly widely-known racist beliefs. In his deposition, the plaintiff admitted that the alleged harasser never made mention of his victim’s race. The district court granted summary judgment to the city based on its conclusion that the facts alleged did not constitute reverse discrimination harassment under Title VII.
On appeal, the Fifth Circuit agreed, affirming the dismissal. In its opinion, the court stated that the plaintiff did not produce evidence that the alleged harassment occurred due to his race. The Fifth Circuit refused to infer this intent based on the fact that the plaintiff was the only white employee in the department. Calling the plaintiff’s father a racist is not the same as discrimination based on race. Race is a set of physical characteristics, while racism is a prejudicial belief based on race.
While employers should not tolerate the kind of behavior alleged by the plaintiff, this case demonstrates that not every conflict between employees of different races involves harassment or discrimination based on race. If litigated, courts will look for more direct evidence that the alleged conduct occurred because of the victim’s and the perpetrator’s races.