Twenty-nine years ago last month, Saturday Night Live debuted a skit where a white New Yorker (played by John Goodman) engages in numerous acts of vandalism because of his mistaken beliefs about the Middle Eastern ancestry of a store’s owner. The skit is a reminder that harming someone solely because of their national origin or ancestry is never right. If the person or entity doing that to you is your employer, it could be illegal and you can potentially recover substantial damages in a discrimination lawsuit. If you have encountered that kind of mistreatment, don’t delay in contacting an experienced New Jersey national origin discrimination lawyer to discuss your situation.
The SNL skit takes on renewed relevance this spring as incidents of discrimination against people of Russian origin or ancestry have increased dramatically following the start of the war between Russia and Ukraine.
Japan Times reported about anti-Russian discrimination in that country, including an inn that refused to house guests from Russia or Belarus. Russians have also been banned from participating in major events like the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the Eurovision international song contest.
The incidents are not limited to Japan or Europe, though. The Society for Human Resource Management has reported that anti-Russian discrimination is occurring in workplaces in the United States. A textile company allegedly denied a Russian-born sales manager new customers “until this whole Ukraine thing blows over.” A marketing firm reportedly told a new employee to try to hide their Russian accent “for the next few months, particularly around top management.” An accounting firm manager allegedly asked a CPA repeatedly to explain Russian President Putin’s reasons for invading Ukraine during a staff meeting.
Many of those things could potentially represent pieces of evidence in a national origin discrimination case under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination. One area that is particularly noteworthy is the issue of language and accents. Even if you speak impeccable English, you may be the object of teasing, abuse, or harassment at work. You may be the target of anti-Mexican slurs simply because you speak English with a Spanish accent or, if you’re Indian, be taunted with names like “Apu” (based on an Indian-American character from The Simpsons who speaks with an accent.) Alternately, your employer might discriminate by installing an “English-only” policy in the workplace.
Any of these, including the “English-only” policy, potentially can be the basis for a successful discrimination lawsuit. Your employer cannot take any sort of adverse employment action (like termination, denial of employment, demotion, suspension, etc.) because of your English fluency or your foreign accent. That includes instituting an English-only workplace policy. The only exception occurs when it is necessary for the achievement of one or more essential business goals. Even then, the policy must be specific about the times when it applies. For example, requiring non-native call-takers to speak English on the phone with customers might be legally permissible, but requiring those same workers to speak English during their break periods probably isn’t, as it wouldn’t be tied to a business necessity.
Winning an Anti-Russian Discrimination Case, Even When You’re Not of Russian Ancestry
Finally, we return to the SNL skit to reinforce another aspect of the law. In the skit, each of the vandal’s acts coincides with contemporaneous incidents of war or terrorism (including the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, the Libyan disco bombing in 1986, and Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991.) Each time, the owner reminds the man that he is Turkish, not Iranian, Libyan, or Iraqi. Many people in this country conflate multiple nationalities based on linguistic or racial characteristics. (All brown-skinned Spanish speakers are “Mexicans,” all Slavic-language speakers are “Russians,” all East Asian people are “Chinese,” etc.)
When it comes to your national origin discrimination lawsuit in New Jersey, you can succeed and recover damages if your employer correctly identified your ancestry or if they were mistaken. Say, for example, in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, you got fired from your IT job due to your “Russian accent.” That is possibly a winning case, even if, in reality, you’re a Lithuanian-American whose accent derives from your native language of Lithuanian, and your employer mistook your Lithuanian accent for a Russian one.
Employment discrimination based on your national origin or ancestry is against the law in New Jersey. That prohibition doesn’t go away and doesn’t change just because the government of a foreign country (from which you or your ancestors once hailed) did something bad or unpopular in this country. When you have become the target of that sort of mistreatment at work, you need capable legal representation on your side. Talk to the knowledgeable New Jersey nationality discrimination attorneys at Phillips & Associates. Our attorneys are experienced in “going to bat” for workers like you and are ready to get started on your case. Contact us online or at (609) 436-9087 today to set up a free and confidential consultation.