Court rules occasional racial/ethnic slurs are not a form of discrimination

If you are an Arab-American and you hear a manager refer to you as a “dumb Arab,” that’s discrimination…right? Not according to a federal court in Virginia.

Imagine being a minority in the workplace where your good work goes unrewarded. Now imagine hearing racial/ethnic slurs coming from the mouth of your supervisor’s boss. One would come to a reasonable conclusion that your lack of promotion is due to discrimination.

Some minorities reading this are probably thinking “Yeah, been there done that.” White people might be thinking “Sue the bastards!” To which people who have been in this position will reply “Don’t bother. You’re probably going to lose.”

This sounds like a defeatist attitude, but it’s based on reality, experience and court decisions. Regarding the latter, a recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Claude Hilton of the Eastern District of Virginia has essentially protected racists and racist speech, consequently disabling minorities from claiming discrimination in the workplace when a person in a position of power says something like “dumb Arab.”

In 2014, a Muslim Arab-American engineer at the Virginia Department of Transportation, Rayyan, filed a lawsuit against the agency for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff was an objectively good engineer, based on the two quantifiable metrics used during evaluations.

In October 2013, the plaintiff’s supervisor, Northridge, submitted a favorable evaluation. However, the supervisor’s boss, Shropshire (a white Christian female), instructed him to mark Rayyan’s evaluation from “contributor” to “below contributor.” It’s worth noting that Shropshire rarely worked directly with Rayyan, whereas Northridge was Rayyan’s direct supervisor.

Rayyan reported this to HR since such an evaluation placed him on a 90-day re-evaluation plan, typical before termination. Furthermore, Northridge resigned in December 2013, “in large part because of the actions of Shropshire,” according to court documents. Due to the resignation, Shropshire became Rayyan’s immediate supervisor.

Northridge gave Rayyan a favorable review during his re-evaluation for the first six weeks. After he left, Shropshire took over the remaining six weeks, two of which she was gone during holiday vacation.

During this time, Shropshire made derogatory remarks to anyone who wasn’t white, including “that behavior may be okay in your country, but it’s now [sic] how it’s done in America.” It was common knowledge around the workplace that Shropshire treated minorities differently and unfairly. Shropshire also told colleagues that Rayyan was a “dumb Arab” who “would not be around for long.” Not surprisingly, Shropshire gave Rayyan an unfavorable review and fired him.

That brings us to the lawsuit.

On Jan. 12, Judge Hilton ruled in favor of Shropshire due to Rayyan failing “to provide direct evidence of racial discrimination or retaliation.” How did the judge reach this conclusion? Was Rayyan unable to prove that the allegations of racist remarks were true?

Not so.

“An occasional or sporadic use of a racial or ethnic slur by itself is not an act of racial discrimination,” Judge Hilton said in his decision.


Testimony during the trial states that Shropshire “would refer to the middle east [sic]” when she made the comment about “stupid.” It was this that Rayyan inferred the “dumb Arab” remark. Also from the decision:

“Likewise, the statement that ‘this is not how it’s done here in America’ is also not evidence of direct discrimination.”

It isn’t?

According to Judge Hilton, general racism is perfectly okay in the workplace and is not indicative of how one treats their employees, despite evidence that supports unfair reviews for minorities. In the eyes of Judge Hilton, concentrated racism seems to be the line.

This is why racism is alive and well in America and also why so many people don’t believe it exists. Racism is not always direct. Racism isn’t always someone calling a black person the N-word to their face. Racism takes all forms, including direct and indirect, blatant and subtle, blanket statements and those directed at one person. But it’s all racism.

If you’re white and wonder why a minority doesn’t “do something about it,” maybe this will give you an idea why.

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