Thursday, April 10, 2008

Deconstructing race, ethnicity, and national origin

Even though this blog is called the Ohio Employer's Law Blog, I often write about issues that come up outside of Ohio because I think they will be of interest to Ohio businesses. Abdullahi v. Prada, decided recently by the 7th Circuit, is one such issue. It discusses the similarities and differences between race, nationality, and ethnicity, how they are often intertwined in employment discrimination issues, and the linguistic tightrope we often walk in trying to distinguish among them.

Race, nationality, and ethnicity are sometimes correlated, but they are not synonyms. A racial group as the term is generally used in the United States today is a group having a common ancestry and distinct physical traits. The largest groups are whites, blacks, and East Asians. Iran is a country, not a race, and an "Iranian" is simply a native of Iran. Iranians and other Central Asians are generally regarded as "white," whatever their actual skin color; many Indians, for example, are dark. Some Central Asians are indistinguishable in appearance from Europeans, or from Americans whose ancestors came from Europe, while others (besides Indians), for example Saudi Arabians, would rarely be mistaken for Europeans. Some Iranians, especially if they speak English with an Iranian accent, might, though not dark-skinned, strike some Americans as sufficiently different looking and sounding from the average American of European ancestry to provoke the kind of hostility associated with racism. Yet hostility to an Iranian might instead be based on the fact that Iran is regarded as an enemy of the United States, though most immigrants to the United States from Iran are not friends of the current regime.

Because of the intrinsic similarities between these three concepts, the plaintiff was not precluded from suing her employer for "race" discrimination, even though in her administrative charge she had only checked the boxes for "national origin" and "religion".

[Hat tip: Workplace Prof Blog]

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