Bridgewater State University is the subject of a novel lawsuit after it asked Donna Johnston, a white applicant for one of three open positions in the School of Social Work, to, according to the Boston Globe, “defend her whiteness” in a job interview. The university said that she “missed the target” in answering how she could overcome her “white privilege.”
According to The Boston Globe article, Johnston was one of ten applicants and felt that she was highly qualified for the one-year assistant professorship after teaching at Southern New Hampshire University and Virginia Commonwealth University. She is a licensed social worker from Plainfield, Connecticut with extensive clinical experience.
She said that she was shocked in the interview when a professor asked her to defend “your white privilege.” Johnston says that she was told that “Black students may not be able to relate to you because of your white privilege.” Johnston reportedly acknowledged her white privilege but failed to adequately answer how she would address it.
The university is quoted as acknowledging the question but insisting that it was meant to give Johnston an “opportunity to show … how she would use her experience and teaching skills to overcome a common obstacle as a social worker and teacher.” It added that her answer “missed the target.”
It is not clear what that target is. Johnson’s lawyer is quoted as saying “If somebody had said to a Black applicant, let’s talk about your blackness, or how does your blackness affect something, there’d be outrage.”
Yet, there are challenges in the lawsuit. First, two white applicants were hired. Second, the university is citing the lack of classroom experience as one of the non-racial factors leading to Johnson’s rejection.
It is clear, however, that Johnson’s race was interjected into the interview process. The school is likely to argue that such questions arise with social workers and that they wanted to see how Johnston would respond.
Boston-based lawyer Rebecca Pontikes told the paper that the remarks did not sound “profoundly racist” since they could be interpreted “two ways.” However, the test is likely not to be whether something is profoundly or simply racist. The question is whether an applicant can be subject to added scrutiny because of her race.
I certainly agree that this will be a tough case in light of the fact that two of the three successful applicants were white. There is also a credible claim that the interview process was meant to test an applicant in her response to expected questions in the classroom.
However, it could raise equally tough countervailing questions for a court on whether minority applicants could be asked to defend or respond to their race in such interviews. The court could conclude that a black applicant could legitimately be challenged on how she would respond to race-based comments or criticisms. Yet, that would run counter to prior cases where the interjection of race in interviews was viewed as creating a hostile or discriminatory environment for applicants.
The EEOC lays out limited purposes for asking about race in applicants and confines them to tracking non-discriminatory diversity goals:
Can an employer ask about an applicant’s race on an application form?
Employers may legitimately need information about their employees or applicants race for affirmative action purposes and/or to track applicant flow. One way to obtain racial information and simultaneously guard against discriminatory selection is for employers to use separate forms or otherwise keep the information about an applicant’s race separate from the application. In that way, the employer can capture the information it needs but ensure that it is not used in the selection decision.
Unless the information is for such a legitimate purpose, pre-employment questions about race can suggest that race will be used as a basis for making selection decisions. If the information is used in the selection decision and members of particular racial groups are excluded from employment, the inquiries can constitute evidence of discrimination.
However, the EEOC also says that such questions should be avoided in job interviews:
We recommend that you avoid asking applicants about personal characteristics that are protected by law, such as race, color, religion, sex, national origin or age. These types of questions may discourage some individuals from applying, may be viewed suspiciously by some applicants, and may be considered evidence of intent to discriminate by the EEOC. If you do not have this information when you decide who to hire, it may be easier for you to defend your business against a hiring discrimination complaint.
Facebook was recently sued by black applicants who objected to being told about the desire to find applicants who are a “cultural fit” with the company.
Recently, a white executive was awarded $10 million after he successfully argued that he was fired because Novant Health wanted to achieve diversity goals.