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Racial and Gender Discrimination and Harassment in Organizations

The extensive research on the complex and salient issues of racial and gender discrimination, inter group conflict, and racial harassment in the United States occupational structure and other institutions, which I and others have conducted, indicates past and present workplace discrimination and the presence of harassment and hostile work environments for many employees of Color. However, the form and expression of racial hostility and discrimination has shifted over the past three decades.

In evaluating a racially hostile work environment, it is important to note that the manifestations and forms of expression associated with discrimination have changed significantly over the past four decades. Race relations and racial conflicts have moved from the overt expressions of prejudice, discrimination and racial hatred associated with the first half of this century to what some scholars call "second-generation", or more subtle barriers or forms of harassment, exclusion and hostility. The so-called new discrimination or harassment can be identified by attitudes, behaviors, practices, policies, decisions, and workplace outcomes that; (a) maintain the status quo (i.e., a predominately white male workforce and maintaining the positions of Blacks and other people of Color in isolated and low level jobs) and (b); are couched in race neutral language and behavior. Some scholars refer to this strategy as maintaining a non-prejudiced self-image. One study that investigated the neutral language of racial behavior reported that "the findings support the view that racial prejudice among whites is likely to be expressed in subtle, indirect, and rational ways, whereas more direct and obvious expressions of prejudice are avoided . . . This pattern of behavior seems well-suited to protect a non-prejudiced, non-discriminatory self-image . . ." Fry & Gaertner, 1986).

Racial discrimination or harassment should be understood as expressed by Courts - that hostile work environment harassment can not be limited to just "economic" and "tangible discrimination" - but includes the entire spectrum of disparate treatment in employment. . Harassment can exist in a workplace in such a way as to pollute the environment in such a way as to destroy completely the emotional and psychological stability of minority group workers.

Thus, workplace discrimination can be determined by how Black, women or members of other underrepresented groups are treated and how the company implements its equal opportunity policy.

It is important to note here that the subtle and indirect nature of the modern forms of prejudice and racial avoidance are such that a reasonable black person or person of Color, who psychologically identifies with his or her racial group membership and is therefore aware of and offended by the new expressions of discrimination, harassment, or unfair treatment will often be one of a few people in the workplace to draw the conclusion that discrimination is operating in the work situation. Moreover, because of his or her position and perception of unfair treatment, coupled with the companies polices and actual procedures in processing complaints, it is possible that the complaint may not be taken seriously. This is, particularly true given the fact that whites, in work situations involving Blacks who may feel they are treated differently due to race, will reject out of hand race explanations because of the need to protection of their non-prejudiced self-image and instead will point to non-racial factors to explain the situation away. If the Black person persists he or she is then labeled "over-sensitive" and "touchy" –

The extent to which a Black person will react to personal and institutional gender or race-based hostility that affects the conditions of employment depends on that person's racial identity ego status. That is, his or her level psychological resolution about the meaning of his or her racial group membership. Watts and Carter found that Black people varied in their ability to perceive discrimination and the variation was directly related to each person's psychologically determined racial identity rather than just one's ascribed race group category. Nevertheless, how the complaints are expressed may also vary depending on the person' gender, since for a Black women the type of discrimination or harassment may be unclear (i.e., whether it is gender, race or both) One's organizational position and power may also influence how a complaint may be expressed. That is, if the person is the only Black or person of color in the work unit or office she or he may be reluctant to specify the exact form of the harassment or discrimination for fear of being isolated even more than she or he already is in the work unit or office. Also because the expressions of harassment and discrimination are often done in subtle and indirect ways the victim may be unsure about how to present the complaint. For instance, harassment could be expressed in the form of (a); persistent micro-aggressions (subtle, small, stunning automatic assaults that produce stress for its targets) that keep them on the defensive, and in a psychologically reduced condition or; (b), could result from subconscious motivations that are often explained away with some excuse or; (c), simply deny that the reason for hostility was discrimination – instead many argue that the act or behavior was just a joke or for fun.

Researchers that investigate harassment in organizations have reported that many instances of discrimination go unreported. One reason is the belief that one will not be treated fairly. People feel that; (1), the process is biased in favor of the alleged offender, who usually has a higher position in the organizational structure then the victim; (2), filling a grievance is futile and will only exacerbate one's situation rather than improve it; (3), the system cannot or will not protect the complainants' privacy; (4), the system cannot or will not protect the complainants from retaliation by the offender even if it is unlawful; (5), the complainants may be apprehensive about the credibility of their complaint.

When the organization has explicit policies and procedures with clear consequences for violations and the company carries the responsibility for addressing such violations as opposed to a token effort or a policy with no action - then women and other groups protected from discrimination or harassment feel empowered to act on their complaint. Moreover, it is important to point out that individuals may be influenced by the practices and procedures of a company. Scholars have noted that stereotypes can influence how employees are seen and responded to and that stereotypic beliefs can be elicited by the environment as well as carried around in people's heads. Thus, a workplace can be made hostile and may elicit race or gender stereotypes by establishing norms that signal acceptance of harassing or discriminatory behaviors.

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