While President Donald Trump’s remark that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to their ancestral countries was condemned as racist and wrong, similar comments by others have generated far more serious consequences.
Language like Trump used is against the law in the workplace. Supervisors or colleagues who target co-workers with verbal abuse, and organizations that allow it, can end up in court, facing big fines.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cites words similar to Trump's in a previously issued document explaining employment harassment based on national origin:
"Ethnic slurs and other verbal or physical conduct because of nationality are illegal if they are severe or pervasive and create an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment, interfere with work performance, or negatively affect job opportunities. Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person's foreign accent or comments like, 'Go back to where you came from,' whether made by supervisors or by co-workers."
When Trump tweeted that Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts should "go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came," he used the kind of racially offensive language that has led to hefty fines, as EEOC employment discrimination cases have shown.
The congresswomen can’t complain to the EEOC because Trump isn’t their boss - he has no authority over the legislative branch and the congresswomen, though he sets the tone for the government and appoints the head of the EEOC.
Private sector employees have successfully taken action against those who make or tolerate similar comments. A Federal Insider review of EEOC documents shows the agency has won lawsuit settlements on behalf of employees in at least a dozen cases over the past decade, in part because a supervisor or colleague said "go back" to an employee in a bigoted context.
According to EEOC documents, the settlements that hit employers the hardest include:
• A 2010 agreement with Elmer W. Davis Inc., a Rochester, New York, roofing contractor, to pay $1 million to African American employees because “they were constantly subjected to racial slurs by their white foremen” including ‘All n----rs should get on a boat and go back to Africa.’ "
• A 2012 agreement with Delano Regional Medical Center, in Delano, California, to pay $975,000 because Filipino American hospital staffers suffered a “hostile work environment,” including “humiliating threats of arrest if they did not speak English and were told to go back to the Philippines.”
• A 2009 agreement with Wheeler Construction Inc., in Phoenix, Arizona, to pay $325,000 because of verbal harassment against two employees that included telling them to go back to Mexico. One of the employees was born in the United States (as were three of the four congresswomen Trump targeted).
• A 2011 agreement with New York University, described by EEOC as “the largest private university in the United States and one of New York City’s ten biggest employers,” to pay $210,000 because a library mailroom supervisor "regularly addressed the employee, a native of Ghana, with slurs such as ‘monkey’ and ‘gorilla’ and insults such as ‘go back to your cage.’ "
• A 2011 agreement with Simon Property Group, a national real estate company that owned a Caesars Palace shopping mall in Las Vegas, to pay $125,000 because a white housekeeping shift leader called Latino employees racial slurs including " ‘tacos,’ and ‘burritos’ and repeatedly told them to ‘go back to Mexico.’ "
• A 2010 agreement with the Sahara Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas to pay $100,000 because "Sahara’s supervisors and coworkers continuously belittled and harassed Ezzat Elias . . . because of his Egyptian heritage. The alleged harassers openly and continually subjected Elias to derogatory comments, such as ‘Go back to Egypt.’ "
The law applies to all employees in the private and public sectors, but supervisors should be held to a higher standard. James Eisenmann, former executive director of the Merit Systems Protection Board, a quasi-judicial agency that protects against prohibited personnel practices in the federal workplace, said a supervisor who used Trump's language could face discipline ranging from a verbal warning to termination.
"The level of discipline, of course, would depend on the severity and frequency of this conduct and whether the supervisors had engaged in similar conduct in the past," he said. "Indeed, an agency could be held liable if it fails to discipline the supervisor and he engages in subsequent similar misconduct in the future."
The White House did not respond to requests for comment. All three EEOC commissioners were unavailable to answer questions, according to an agency spokesperson, even by email. That includes the chair, Janet Dhillon, a Trump appointee who was first asked for comment on July 24.
When EEOC sued Marion’s Cleaners in Metairie, Louisiana, last year in a “go back to Mexico” case, Rudy Sustaita, the agency’s regional attorney for the Houston District Office, said “no person deserves to be verbally and physically accosted and humiliated merely because of being born in a particular country or being of a particular race.”
Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson covers federal government issues in the Federal Insider, formerly the Federal Diary. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with the Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns.