Researchers have found that exposure to racial discrimination to be prevalent and significant relationships have been found between experiences of workplace racial harassment and emotional distress (i.e., anxiety, stress and traumatic stress reactions). In cases brought for racial discrimination the testimony of an experienced expert witness will be required.
Researchers contend that there is a disconnection between legal and psychiatric definitions of emotional distress in race-related cases that make it difficult for mental health professionals to evaluate potential harm or impairment, in racial discrimination cases. It should be recognized that targets in such cases can be harmed by events attributed to the racial events and that traditional mental health assessment tools do not adequately capture the emotional and psychological reactions that people have to such encounters. Mental health professionals serving as independent evaluators should consider the factual evidence for alleged racial incidents and other race-based experiences and the context in which claims are made.
Subtle Acts of Racial Harassment
Evaluators should be aware that subtle acts of racial harassment can and often do have a strong psychological impact on targets and ambiguous bias is experienced more negatively. In part, because they occur within the targets’ close social networks (e.g., coworkers and supervisors). Evaluators should assess the possible emotional distress or functional impairment that can result from racial encounters at work. One can experience race-based traumatic stress injury from workplace racial hostile environments.
Case Example: Discrimination at Work
I was retained to evaluate whether nine plaintiffs employees and customers experienced racially hostile environments and if they had race-based emotional distress.
I interviewed each regarding his/her life, educational and work background, including medical, psychiatric, development and occupational history. I asked about prior experiences with race and their perceptions of race relations. I ask them to rely what happened to them at work, when, also what did they do about it, and how they were affected psychologically and emotionally.
One function of the forensic evaluation in race-related cases is to determine if the particular situation was (1) the proximate cause of the psychological damages or emotional injury suffered, (2) how was the particular situation related to the functional impairment experienced, if any. Accurate establishment of proximate cause necessitates the collection of a thorough history. Where possible, I seek to obtain corroborating information about the alleged incidents and possible impact on the plaintiff from family members, friends, colleagues, and other witnesses.
Assessment of Emotional Effects of Race-Based Encounters
In the assessment of the emotional effects of race-based encounters I consider the characteristics of the alleged incident in question, both in terms of its objective features (i.e., which might include a research-based analysis of the social framework in which the event occurred) and subjective meaning from the perspectives of the involved parties.
However, in assessing race-based encounters, I incorporate an analysis of the influence of racial/cultural issues. The racial-cultural factors should include consideration of the parties, in the litigation, dispositional factors such as racial identity ego status (psychological orientation to one’s racial group), which might influence appraisal, coping, and psychological outcomes. Finally, it is essential that the evaluator maintain a professionally independent approach. Race-based encounters are often subtle, ambiguous, and complex, and may be difficult for those not subjected to such experiences to recognize. Therefore, evaluators might include a social framework analysis that helps the court and jury to place the events in a social-cultural context.
For instance, one plaintiff in this case was Mark. He was a healthy, middle-class African-American man in his late twenties. He worked as a salesman in a retail store for a few years. During his employment in the store, Mark alleged that, he was denied time off, was given menial assignments (e.g., mopping), and was spoken to in a demeaning manner by his store manager treatment that was not directed at other employees. In addition, he claimed that he was required to ensure that Black customers did not steal anything. He was disturbed and upset by how he was treated and the tasks he was asked to perform.
Mark stated that he followed documented and published procedures to file a number of complaints against his manager during his employment. Mark alleged that his store manager retaliated against him by threatening to fire him. He endured the mistreatment and threats of termination because he needed the job. He nevertheless was fired and filed a lawsuit against his employer.
I had testimony from five current and former employees and several managers of the store that supported many of the allegations made by Mark. Store managers, who testified for the defense, indicated that Mark had filed complaints and that there were differences in treatment by the managing staff. However, their attributions for the differences in treatment were not consistent with Mark’s allegations.
Specific Aspects of Incident That Should be Assessed
Specific aspects of the incident that should be assessed include: (1) characteristics of the actors involved (race/ethnicity, extent of power and influence of the parties); (2) number, nature, intensity, ambiguity, duration, and chronicity of the event(s); (3) perception of the negativity, controllability, and suddenness of the event(s) from the point of view of all parties; and (4) the extent to which the event(s) constituted a threat or caused feelings of fear and helplessness to the plaintiff; and (5) how the person(s) responded to the incident, including attempts to cope and/or adapt.
My clinical interviews with all the plaintiffs did not find emotional distress reactions. Yet Mark suffered from symptoms of depression, general anxiety, low self-esteem, and feelings of humiliation following his encounters with his managers at work.
He indicated that his interpersonal relationships became strained, particularly before and after he was fired. Mark’s responses to the assessment interview questions indicated that he had intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and jumpiness.
In addition, he felt that his work experiences consisted mostly of hostile actions intended to demean, denigrate and degrade him because of his race. Mark was determined to have experienced emotional distress and was impaired by race-based traumatic stress injury as a result of the hostile work environment at his former job.
Variation in How People Perceive Experience with Racism
There is considerable variation in how people perceive experiences in general and experiences with race and racism in particular. How a person experiences and makes meaning of an encounter with racism will depend on many factors associated with that individual’s background, health, and cognitive processing. The primary dispositional factor that should be considered in the assessment of race-based traumatic stress is racial identity ego status. Thus, as part of the assessment process, it should be determined that the claimant is able to recognize racism and understand its meaning.
Case Example Zulaka: Racially Holistic Environment at Work
I was retained to evaluate whether ten plaintiffs employees experienced racially hostile environments. My interviews’ covered the same format as above however in this case I also interviewed someone close to each person about what they experienced and how the person’s behavior changed or not before, during and after the alleged events.
Again, not all the plaintiffs experienced race-based traumatic stress reactions; many did as illustrated by the case Zulaka.
Zulaka was from this group – she was a 40-year-old Black woman who claimed she was harmed by a racially hostile work environment. She filed several racial
discrimination complaints at her job to no avail and she took her concerns outside of the organization to seek relief. Her complaints involved racial bias associated with issues of unequal pay, being forced to work overtime and unwarranted close supervision.
Zulaka stated during the assessment interview that she experienced chest pains while at home one day and that she was taken to the emergency room (ER) and was kept to determine the basis for her ailment. Her physical episode turned out to be a panic attack. She also reported high levels of anxiety, headaches, and episodes of trembling before she would go to work. While at work she started to have memory loss that got worse over time. At work and home she was unable to concentrate or to calm her thoughts. The work situation affected many aspects of her family relationships. The corroborative interviewee supported her account of her behavior and emotional state.
Zulaka had general and personal knowledge of race such that she was able to recognize her situation as a racially hostile work environment. She indicated that the racial experiences were beyond her control, unexpected and emotionally painful. She also tried to cope with the stress of the situation by filing complaints with HR. Based on the medical and psychiatric evidence showing episodes of panic attacks attributed to work-related stress, the assessment and corroborative interview, and the Race-based traumatic stress symptom scale results, she was depressed (RBTSS T-score, 62), angry about racial encounter (RBTSS T-score, 54), had intrusive thoughts (RBTSS T-score, 53), showed signs of arousal (hyper-vigilance), and exhibited compromised functioning, i.e., physical reactions (RBTSS T-score, 54). During the interview she was visibly distraught and in considerable emotional pain as she recalled the events.
For an assessment of race-based traumatic stress it is essential to learn about the person’s racial background in addition to compiling a detailed account of the precipitating racial encounter. The client should explain what about the event(s) were racial and what was the basis for his or her emotional pain. Did the harm manifest in ways that produced emotional and psychological impairment? What did the client do to cope with and address the situation and what was the result of the coping efforts? Did others (employer, co-worker(s), and other parties) involved think of the event(s) in racial terms? How did they characterize what happened? For Zulaka the harm and impairment was evident and the racially hostile environment at her workplace was the direct basis for the emotional and psychological harm she experienced.
Assessment of alleged workplace racial harassment should include consideration of the employee’s background, experiences at work, collateral evidence and the psychological impact of the harassment on the individual.
Robert T. Carter, PhD is a licensed psychologist and expert witness who studies racism and racial trauma in employment and other settings. His contact information is firstname.lastname@example.org and (201) 532-2745.