Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it illegal for an employer to harass an employee or take adverse action against him or her because of the employee’s race, color, or ethnic background. Title VII applies to employers with fifteen or more employees. Many states have laws which expand anti-discrimination protections to cover smaller employers. Please see our chart of Information by State for more detailed information. Another federal statute, however, provides redress for employers of any size.
Harassment can include any behavior that is racially charged – offensive jokes, the use of ethnic slurs, racially insensitive statements stereotyping Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Caucasians, etc. – as long as the behavior is frequent or severe enough to materially impact the conditions of employment. That is to say, the behavior must create a work environment that is so hostile, offensive, or abusive that it interferes with an employee’s ability to perform his or her job. Offhand comments or isolated incidents that are not particularly serious generally do not rise to the level of “harassment.” One comment, however, can be harassment if severe enough, for instance, the use of the “n” word by a superior.
Harassment does not have to take place for racial discrimination to exist, however. Any action that differentiates in the terms or conditions of employment on the basis of race may constitute racial discrimination. This could include prejudicial hiring practices, paying employees of different races unequally, failing to promote qualified employees because of race, or instituting policies that tend to disadvantage certain employees.
Title VII also prohibits discrimination based on:
Physical Characteristics or Skin Color
Federal anti-discrimination law includes prohibitions of harassment or discrimination on the basis of skin color or physical characteristics associated with a particular race, even where the victim and the perpetrator are members of the same race. For example, it would be unlawful for an employer to discriminate against light- or dark-skinned African-Americans.
Association with Members of a Particular Race
Title VII also protects individuals from discrimination because of association with another individual of a particular race or color. For example, it is unlawful to take an adverse employment action against a white employee because she is married to a Latino man, or because she has a biracial child.