UI staff file racial harassment lawsuit

By Olivia Welshans, Staff Writer

University employees filed a lawsuit on Jan. 28 in federal court, containing allegations of racial harassment of black employees and claims the office tasked with investigating discrimination is itself guilty of racial harassment.

The plaintiffs allege in the class action complaint filed with the court that racial harassment is “standard operating procedure” at the University.

The lawsuit alleges University staff used racial slurs, stereotypes and other offensive racial language toward black workers, calling them “n—–,” “boy,” “monkey,” “lazy,” “angry,” “rowdy” and “Aunt Jemima.”

According to the lawsuit, black employees were “exposed to threats of racial violence, such as nooses, swastikas, KKK garb, racist graffiti and confederate flags.”

Attorney Jesse Centrella is working on the lawsuit representing the plaintiffs. His firm Friedman and Houlding LLP is New York-based and specializes in civil rights cases.

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Centrella said his firm litigates racial harassment cases throughout the country, but they have never seen a case like this at an institute of higher education. He said they typically only see this type of conduct in industrial settings.

Robin Kaler, associate chancellor of public affairs, said the University’s attorneys were still reviewing the lawsuit as of Sunday, and the University will not discuss specifics of the litigation at this time.

Kaler said when the University learns of concerns, it looks into them and takes action to address them.

The lawsuit also alleges the Office for Access and Equity, formerly the Office of Diversity, Equity and Access, which is in charge of investigating discrimination claims, is “rife with internal racial harassment.”

Plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit the office’s director “openly directs racial slurs and stereotypes at black subordinates.”

“Any hope that the University has to stamp out discrimination on their campus is hamstrung by the fact that the unit they have tasked with enforcing that discrimination law is itself saturated with racism,” Centrella said.

The lawsuit alleges that the University is in violation of both federal and state law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003.

Photos of a noose that was allegedly tied and thrown by a white campus employee in front of a black employee in April 2016, and a swastika that a black dining employee found in the bathroom of the Food Stores building in December 2016 are included in the lawsuit.

Atiba Flemons, one of the plaintiffs on the lawsuit, has worked as a brick mason in Facilities and Services from 2008 to 2009, and again from 2011 to the present.

“When I got hired at the University, I thought it was going to be great place to work,” Flemons said, “but everything that glitters ain’t gold. It has been a hell hole since I have been here.”

Flemons said his work supervisor has harassed him for years, treating him worse than white co-workers, cursing at him and belittling him. He said his supervisor said he did not want to hire him, but he was only hired for diversity purposes.

Flemons said the stress brought on by the harassment has caused him to seek counseling, strained his marriage and caused him weight gain and hair loss.

Flemons said no resolution came out of his complaints to ODEA, now OAE. According to the lawsuit, OAE led an investigation that concluded in January 2013, which found Flemons’ supervisor did not violate the non-discrimination policy.

Flemons said the racial harassment continues to this day.

The lawsuit claims the plaintiffs exhausted efforts they could take to address their issues without resorting to legal action, and claims the University’s nondiscrimination policy sets too high of standards for what constitutes a violation, allowing unchecked and pervasive racial discrimination and harassment.

The University defines harassment as a form of discrimination and unwelcome conduct that may be verbal, written, electronic or physical in nature, according to the lawsuit.

Policy violations occur when the unwelcome conduct is “sufficiently severe or pervasive,” “objectively offensive” and “unreasonably interferes with, denies, or limits a person’s ability to participate or benefit from educational or employment opportunities.”

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs criticize the way OAE investigators conduct investigations, claiming they ignore context in cases involving racially motivated harassment.

“ODEA frequently looks at each individual harassing acts in a vacuum, divorced from the totality of the circumstances,” the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit claims the OAE, campus officials and the Human Resources department ignore or fail to investigate complaints of racial harassment and suggest “complainants engage in dispute resolution, without explaining that they have a right to an investigation, defeating ODEA’s purpose, to root out discrimination.”

The lawsuit seeks compensation for the plaintiffs as well as a change to the University’s anti-discrimination policy and standard operating procedures.

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Correction: A previous version of the headline misidentified “staff” as “faculty.” The Daily Illini regrets this error.