As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the nation can look back with pride at the progress we have made reducing racial discrimination in workplaces since the Commission opened its doors on July 2, 1965.
However, despite that progress, far too many workers still are subject to subtle practices that limit their opportunities. That is what the EEOC is preparing for its next 50 years.
Data collected in the EEOC’s first equal-employment opportunity survey of the country’s largest employers showed that in 1966, African Americans composed less than 1 percent of senior-level employees at those companies. Meanwhile, about 0.5 percent of senior-level employees were Hispanic, 0.3 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, and 0.1 percent were American or Alaska Native.
By contrast, 2013 survey data (the most recent available) from the largest U.S. employers put African-American senior-level employees at almost 7 percent, Hispanic senior-level employees at more than 7 percent, Asian or Pacific Islander senior-level employees at more than 5 percent, and American Indian or Alaska Native senior-level employees at approximately .7 percent.
Regardless of the considerable growth in the number of people of color in senior-level positions, last year racial discrimination remained the most frequent basis of discrimination charges filed with the EEOC under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That provision prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, national original, sex and religion.
Race constitutes 35 percent of all discrimination charges filed under the statutes the EEOC enforces, which also cover discrimination because of age, disability and family medical history or genetic information. Moreover, the number of racial-harassment charges surpassed all other Title VII charges alleging harassment.
For those reasons, the EEOC recently held a public meeting in Miami. The theme was Confronting Racial and Ethnic Discrimination in the 21st Century Workplace. Panelists reminded us that our country has not yet realized the full import of Title VII. We heard about barriers to equal-employment opportunity that exclude people for reasons not related to job qualifications — barriers such as the impact of criminal background screens on specific communities of color. We also know that today racial discrimination can be found in job segregation, unequal pay, harassment and retaliation as well as in disparities in hiring and advancement.
As an example, the EEOC recently reached a settlement with Patterson-UTI Drilling Co., resolving claims of nationwide race and national-origin discrimination. The company settled for $14.5 million and agreed to making significant changes to its employment practices. The EEOC alleged that Patterson-UTI denied promotions to and engaged in systemic harassment and retaliation against workers of color.
The agency also settled a case against the Pioneer Hotel and Gambling Hall. The EEOC alleged hotel staff repeatedly subjected Latino room attendants to offensive, derogatory comments about their national origin and skin color. Other room attendants and supervisors allegedly called the Latino workers harsh racial epithets.
When the EEOC files suit, our success rate is greater than 90 percent. However, for every lawsuit we file, we work with employers to resolve voluntarily more than 100 charges through mediation, settlement and conciliation. Last year, the EEOC helped employers and workers settle 77 percent of the discrimination charges brought for mediation, and 97 percent of those who used the EEOC’s mediation program reported confidence in it.
As we look to the future, the EEOC is investing in strategies to resolve workplace disputes early, efficiently and with lasting impact. To address such stubborn workplace challenges as harassment, we are bringing together workers, employers, academics and experts from various fields to help us identify the underlying problems and develop strategies to open the doors of opportunity to all.
Working together we can protect workers’ rights, build stronger workplaces, and advance equal employment opportunity across America.
Congress, through the Civil Rights Act of 1964, created the EEOC to enforce the statute’s protections against employment discrimination. After 50 years, the core mission of EEOC remains the same: to stop and remedy discrimination in the workplace. The ongoing need to combat discrimination in all its 21st-century forms makes the EEOC as vital now as in 1965.
Jenny Yang is chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).