Jaw-Dropping Racial Harassment in Chicago: Employees Did “Black Face Routine” at a Company Meeting?

The Chicago Sun-Times is reporting on a stark and disturbing story of racial harassment involving the ThyssenKrupp Elevator Corporation. Montrelle Reese, a 33-year-old former salesman with the company, heard employees use racial slurs and saw them perform a racially insulting black face routine.

According to a CBS Chicago news report, “Reese insists racial harassment was tolerated for months at the company’s Westchester office… [and he also] provided a photo of a ThyssenKrupp manager in blackface during [a] skit [at a company managerial function].” He also said his direct supervisors used the N-word.

A Sad Racial Harassment Story That’s Drawing a Lot of Political Attention
After working at the ThyssenKrupp’s Westchester office from 2007 to 2010, Reese resigned because of the hostility. He then filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights. The Board agreed that there was “substantial evidence of discrimination” against Reese.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson has gotten embroiled in the dispute. Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition is now monitoring ThyssenKrupp to make sure that officials make good on promises to change the corporate culture and eliminate the racial bias elements. Both Rev. Jackson and Reese have stated that the company appears to be reforming its ways, but Reese still maintains that “they are going to have to make it right, with me and with the community.”

Why All of Chicago Is Watching
Reese’s story (and potential lawsuit) is more than just an isolated story about harassment. His situation may hold implications for the entire city of Chicago. Here’s why. ThyssenKrupp is a German company that’s considering moving its large regional offices to Chicago. If the company does move, it could bring much needed jobs to a city badly pummeled by the 2008-2010 Recession and its aftermath. If the lawsuit dissuades the company from moving… then Chicago would have to look to other employers to keep its population employed.

It’s a conundrum for people concerned about workers’ rights. On the one hand, we must ask: is ThyssenKrupp truly capable of the kinds of positive changes that Reese and Jackson want? If not, maybe dissuading the company from “setting up shop” in town is a good thing.

On the other hand, Chicago could really use the employment. As an article at the website NewGeography.com points out, “Since 2007 the [Chicago] region has lost more jobs than Detroit, and more than twice as many as New York. Over the [past] decade… Chicagoland’s total loss was greater than any region outside Detroit. It has lost about as many jobs – 250,000 – as up and comer Houston has gained.”

Lessons Beyond Chicago
The case has obvious importance if you worry about Chicago politics and industry. But it also holds lessons for all of us concerned with workplace issues. It’s already 2012! Is it really possible that, in an American company, employees might still dress up in black face and hurl racial epithets at African American employees? Honestly, the allegations almost sound like they are vestigial–as if they were transported from 1965 to the present.

The moral here is that we live in a complex world. Our society is still, in many ways, reeling from the aftereffects of slavery and Jim Crow laws. If you or somebody you care about has been harassed, discriminated against, retaliated against, or otherwise mistreated at your workplace, the team at Joseph & Kirschenbaum can listen to you and provide excellent suggestions. Call us at (212) 688-5640, or find out more information at www.jhllp.com.

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