Patricia Bivins in the New Orleans office spoke at length in an interview about Thomas after his appointment to the Supreme Court. Bivins said, "Clarence Thomas moved the agency from the dark ages. We were finally given appropriate resources, and Thomas pushed the agency into doing full investigations... This agency is in a better position today to enforce the law, and we are beginning to get some respect." (Dataline, online) Bivins credited the improvements to administrative, policy, and procedural changes in the EEOC to Thomas.
Another contemporary of Thomas' was Harriet Ehrlich who worked in the Houston EEOC office. Ehrlich echoed much Bivins' sentiment, and said. "Thomas professionalized this agency, and revolutionaries it. He upgraded systems, facilities, and training. Before Thomas, the agency had no computerized database or systems for tracking cases or seeing how old cases were or how fast they were moving... In a bureaucracy, it's incredibly important to track cases and move paper... every piece of paper represents a life. We weren't really an enforcement agency until Thomas. He did a superb job of training, teaching investigators how to get proper evidence, interviewing techniques, how to take an affidavit." (Dataline, Online.)
Thomas earned the reputation of a man who knew what steps needed to be taken in order to accomplish the goals set before him, and the 10 years goal of bringing a major corporation to the bargaining table was accomplished. The settlement was the largest civil rights 'reparations' payment in national history, and to this day, the EEOC cites as one of it's chief triumphs the statement that was made to the entire nation as GM executives signed the terms of the agreement. (eeoc.org, online) If a corporation as large as GM could be brought to the bargaining table, and encouraged to create such a large commitment to civil rights, then every company in the county needed to sit up and take notice.
General Motors - An easy target
According to the EEOC statements, and the over 700 civil rights complaints filed against GM, the corporation had "a pattern and practice of race and sex discrimination." In the automakers defense, GM had grown to its current size during a time when white males composed the majority of the educated workforce. As GM built and filled its plants, women were largely still stay at home mothers. Because of the long standing pattern of substandard educational opportunities for black Americans, the black population was largely unqualified for the positions offered in the plant. The largely white male GM population was not the product of design, but rather the result of decades of employment patterns in the modern workplace.
As the plant population aged, and increasing numbers of women and minorities entered the workforce, prejudice and bigotry became a less than subtle occurrence in the manufacturing facilities, and GM built a long standing reputation for racial tensions. The manufacturing plant population is a relatively closed society all to itself. Feelings which start in the shop tends to stay, and are passes along to other workers because of the longevity of an employee's term in the company.
Evidence of this tendency is ongoing within GM facilities even 20 years after the monumental judgment. A lawsuit filed last year in Wayne County, Michigan Circuit Court charges General Motors Corporation with aiding and abetting a Gannett-owned newspaper in New York to discriminate against one of their former Gannett reporters, Demetrius Patterson. The suit charges General Motors with willful and deliberate interference with Mr. Patterson's employment relationship, which ultimately led to his termination at Gannett. (Mazur, Morgan, Meyers & Kittel, 2002)
In another case filed in 2002, A class-action charged General Motors on behalf 50 employees of violating their civil rights by failing to create a safe work environment, free from racial harassment. The case seeks 7.4 billion dollars for civil-rights violations they say they and 450 others endured at a truck plant in Pontiac. In detail, the suit accuses GM of ignoring such incidents as a white employee dressed as a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon harassing black workers. The employees claim that nooses were hung over beams at black workers' work stations, and that supervisors used derogatory terms such as "nigger" and "Buckwheat," when referring to black employees. The suit alleges that GM has ignored or failed to satisfactorily address complaints from African-American, Mexican-American and native American workers at the plant. In its defense, GM responded that it has disciplined blue-collar and white-collar workers involved in the incidents. "We are disappointed that the parties have elected to file a lawsuit," said GM spokesman Tom Wickham." The allegation in the lawsuit that we have a hostile work environment is false. We have done a considerable amount in the plant to educate employees on harassment and discrimination in terms of what is expected of them. That also includes advising our supervisors on what is permissible behavior and inappropriate conduct," (Agence France Presse, 2002)
Clearly, there is a problem in the work environment if 20 years after the GM - EEOC agreement, and 40 years after civil rights legislation has been signed into law the company is still experiencing these types of allegations. While GM cannot be held responsible for the actions of each of its employees, the aggressive position of the legal activist is to pursue those with the deepest pockets. Hopefully GM., and other companies which tolerate this harassment to occur within its facilities, will take notice of the significant legal judgments which can be levied against them, and take whatever steps are necessary to police its workforce and provide opportunities for every worker to advance.
The Future of Civil Rights Legislation
Civil rights legislation has taken an aggressive posture in the legal marketplace for the past 4 decades. The social wrongs of the 1900's needed to be addressed, and companies who benefited from the labors of minority workers were suitable donors toward the good will which needed to be extended to those who has been oppressed for so long. In today's market, however, the practices of judicial activism in the favor of equal employment opportunity may have become disadvantageous to the people groups which it is trying to help. The inequities of the early and middle 20th century have been largely addressed, and society has evolved, not into a culture which does not hold bigotry, but into a culture which opens the doors of opportunity to every citizen. By keeping quotas in place which insist that a certain group gains preference over another, our culture runs the risk of creating reverse discrimination.
The University of Michigan Legal college admissions practices were recently called into question when less academically qualified minority students were accepted ahead of white students with higher grades. The supreme court sides split their decision, and said that preferential treatment was beneficial in one regard, and at one level of university admissions because it created a diverse population which was advantageous to the general student body. However court said that at other levels of applications, the policy created an environment which favored discriminatory practices, and therefore needed to be reviewed. One has to question if the judicial activism which secured the GM settlement is still in the best interests of a society which has established patterns of equal treatment. While acts of individual bigotry will never be eliminated from personal behavior, the practice of treating one group of people as a victim on order to secure political or social advantages is not better than building a legal precedent for "separate but equal" public facilities, which Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Thomas and the entire civil rights organization fought so hard to eliminate.
Agence France Presse. Minority workers sue General Motors for 7.4 billion dollars
Brunner, Borgna. Civil Rights. 2003. Info Please.com. 2 Dec 2003. http://www.infoplease.com.
Civil Rights: an overview. Legal Information institute. 2003. Cornell University. 2 Dec. 2003. http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/civil_rights.html.
Clarence Thomas at the EEOC. Dataline. September 1991. Volume I, No 3-2 Dec. 2003. http://cyberwerks.com:70/0h/dataline/profiles/cthomas.html.
Enforcement Efforts in 1980's. 2002. The EEOC. 2 Dec 2003. http://www.eeoc.gov/35th/1980s/enforcement.html.
Mazur, Morgan, Meyers & Kittel. General Motors Charged In Lawsuit With Aiding Gannett Newspaper To Discriminate Against Its Reporter And Interference With Gannett Reporter's Employment. PR Newswire. 07/31/2002.
Pear, Robert G.M. Agrees to pay $42 Million to end Case on Job Bias. New York Times,…