The other side of discrimination

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Poll Question: Have you been victim of racial, gender or sexual-orientation discrimination in the workplace?

Stanley Smith is known to his friends as Bubba, and he has a lot of friends – white, black, Latino. He’s like a lot of us in that respect.

He’s also a little-league baseball and softball coach, and counts among his players kids of a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Again, nothing out of the ordinary there.

That’s just how most of live in the post-civil rights era America.

We don’t even think about what race our friends and colleagues are.

We might be a generation or two away from race being off the list of divisive social issues, but that doesn’t mean that we’re at each others’ throats in the here and now.

Smith, for reasons you will soon see, is more in touch with race and ethnicity than he ever has been in his life.

“It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s not fair or right for someone to be fired for something definitely that they didn’t do,” said Smith, who was fired from his job at the Hershey Chocolate of Virginia plant in Stuarts Draft after an unusual set of circumstances that began early the morning of May 2 with the discovery of a piece of tape hanging from the ceiling in a work area at the plant.

An African American coworker said the tape resembled a noose to her, and a manager soon called in Smith and several other coworkers to try to figure out if the tape was something more. Three employees, including Smith, were suspended from work without pay, and Smith was later fired despite his consistent protestations of innocence and his repeated insistence that he has no knowledge of how the tape ended up where it was and whether it was intended as some sort of racial threat.

The incident is the talk of the Hershey plant, according to several employees who spoke with The Augusta Free Press on the condition that their names and identities not be used.

“Honestly, I can’t figure out why they did what they did. I feel like they just picked somebody out so they could say they did something about it,” said a coworker who was also called in for questioning about the tape, and who told me that managers have warned employees not to talk to members of the news media at the risk of losing their jobs.

“Everybody there’s talking about it. And they’re asking why he was fired for it,” a second Hershey employee told me. “It’s a bunch of (BS). They just needed a fall guy. And he’s the fall guy. He didn’t have anything to do with it. None of them had anything to do with it. It’s (BS) that he got fired over something like this. And they know it.”

For the record, I contacted Hershey to get the company’s side of the story, and ended up talking with a company spokesman based at the Hershey, Pa., corporate headquarters, Kirk Seville.

“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on personnel issues, so there is no information that I can give you on this specific case,” Seville told me in a brief phone conversation last week.

“In general, I can tell you that we do take issues of safety and security very seriously, and we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind in the workplace,” Seville said.

Now back to Smith, who came forward with his story first and foremost because he wants to clear his name publicly. “I feel like my name is already out there. People already know what happened. They’re already talking about it all over the plant. People have been asking me about it at ballgames. And the thing is, the company is basically telling me that I’m lying when they don’t know what happened themselves. They don’t have any hard evidence. I mean, if somebody had actually seen me doing something like that, number one, I wouldn’t be doing all this. I would lay my head down in shame. I be ashamed of myself for doing something like that,” Smith said.

A second motivation for Smith to come forward is to raise issue with what he is calling “reverse discrimination” in the case. I discussed that topic with Norfolk attorney Raymond Hogge, who has made a name for himself over the past 20 years working for the most part on behalf of companies in the employment-discrimination area, and thus turned heads when he took on the case of a white employee in the Old Dominion University Police Department who claimed to be the victim of racial discrimination at the hands of African American employees in the majority-African American department.

A federal court entered a $200,000 judgment last month against the police department in favor of Hogge’s client, Brett Birkmeyer, over his wrongful termination from the department.

“I strongly believe that everyone should be treated equally without regard to their race, and that the workplace should be color-blind. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed in an effort to achieve those goals, and has been remarkably effective protecting black employees from race discrimination. In some instances, however, it has led to ‘reverse discrimination’ against white employees,” Hogge wrote in an e-mail to the AFP.

What we call “reverse discrimination” can occur when a company, “in response to a white employee’s claim of race discrimination, fears that investigating or taking disciplinary action against black employees will lead those black employees to assert their own claims of discrimination, and the organization therefore turns a blind eye to the rights of the white employees,” Hogge wrote. It can also occur, according to Hogge, when “in order to avoid liability under Title VII, a company must show that it took prompt and effective remedial measures to remedy any discriminatory acts by its employees, and companies, in order to be able to prove they did so, look for sacrificial lambs.”

“I cannot say whether the white employee who is the subject of your story was fired for this reason, but the facts you shared with me are consistent with that possibility,” Hogge wrote. “If he was fired for that reason, then the question becomes whether Hershey, when confronted with complaints by white employees complaining of a potentially racially motivated incident, fires black employees who, based upon similar evidence (or lack thereof), the company believes has not been sufficiently forthcoming with information relevant to its investigation.

“In other words, if the races of the individuals involved were switched, would Hershey still have fired the employee? If not, then the company may be discriminating against white employees on the basis of race in its response to race-discrimination claims, and may have discriminated against the white employee who is the subject of your article,” Hogge wrote.

The Birkmeyer case made headlines in part because these kinds of cases involving white employees claiming to be victims of discrimination are rare. “The number of them is quite small compared to the vast number of discrimination cases asserted by minorities and women,” Hogge wrote.

“Reverse-discrimination cases, however, seem to be coming up with increasing frequency,” according to Hogge. “This may be due, at least in part, to the fact that white employees are coming to realize that, in fact, there really is not such a thing as ‘reverse’ discrimination – discrimination is discrimination, regardless of whether the victim is black or white, and white employees have just as much right to complain of discrimination against them as do minority employees. It may also be due, at least in part, to the cumulative frustration of white employees who feel that their employers pander to the demands of minorities instead of maintaining a truly color-blind workplace.”

Smith feels those frustrations. He has been out of work for going on a month now, and he has bills to pay, and three children – Logan, 13, Deryck, 13, and Lacey, 11 – to take care of.

“I’m going to be working by next week,” he told me in a conversation that we had in his home late last week. “I’m not going to be out of work long enough to get an unemployment check. That’s just not me. I work. I pay my bills.”

Going public with his story isn’t about getting his job back at Hershey. “I wouldn’t want to go back there. It would be too hard. I’d be walking on eggshells,” Smith said. “I think they’d be looking for any excuse they could to get rid of me. This isn’t about going back there. It’s about doing what’s right. And this isn’t right.”

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