August 6, 2016

The EEOC gets in over its head

Sam Smith - One of the ways you can tell that we’re not doing a good job dealing with our ethnic problems is the substantial increase in defining the conflict in terms of its symbolic and semiotic aspects rather than its real consequences such as in education, employment and policing.

In fact, the symbolic follows the real and one of the unanticipated results of banning the wrong symbols is that it helps conceal what’s really going on. Seeing the Confederate flag on the back of a pickup truck is a reminder of the road we still have to travel. Banning it unfortunately does not shorten the trip.

Further, you can end up with problems like this one, reported by the Washington Post:

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, among its other functions, decides “hostile work environment” harassment claims brought against federal agencies …. The EEOC has already ruled that coworkers’ wearing Confederate flag T-shirts can be punishable harassment … and, unsurprisingly, this is extending to other political speech as well. Here’s an excerpt from [a case]  decided by the EEOC two months ago:

On January 8, 2014, Complainant filed a formal complaint in which he alleged that the Agency subjected him to discrimination on the basis of race (African American) and in reprisal for prior EEO activity when, starting in the fall of 2013, a coworker (C1) repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag, which depicts a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Complainant stated that he found the cap to be racially offensive to African Americans because the flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a “slave trader & owner of slaves.”

Complainant maintains that the Gadsden Flag is a “historical indicator of white resentment against blacks stemming largely from the Tea Party.” He notes that the Vice President of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters cited the Gadsden Flag as the equivalent of the Confederate Battle Flag when he successfully had it removed from a New Haven, Connecticut fire department flagpole.

After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military.

However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts. For example, in June 2014, assailants with connections to white supremacist groups draped the bodies of two murdered police officers with the Gadsden flag during their Las Vegas, Nevada shooting spree.

Additionally, in 2014, African-American New Haven firefighters complained about the presence of the Gadsden flag in the workplace on the basis that the symbol was racially insensitive.

In light of the ambiguity in the current meaning of this symbol, we find that Complainant’s claim must be investigated to determine the specific context in which C1 displayed the symbol in the workplace. In so finding, we are not prejudging the merits of Complainant’s complaint. Instead, we are precluding a procedural dismissal that would deprive us of evidence that would illuminate the meaning conveyed by C1’s display of the symbol.

In short, the EEOC will decide whether the Tea Party’s use of “Don’t Tread on Me” obliterates more than two centuries of its previous meanings. Knife Up gives some examples:

Don’t Tread on Me is a very strong statement in the United States with very deep historical roots. The phrase was written under the image of a rattle snake and emblazoned on a yellow flag. This is known as the Gadsden flag and falls within the historical flags of America. 

The symbolism in the flag partnered by the image holds deep meaning. Basically, the “Don’t Tread on Me” phrase combined with the snake ready to strike is a warning. This tells people not to step on or take advantage of the Americans or they will strike.

The use of the snake or more specifically the rattlesnake did not happen by chance. The fact is that the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the timber rattlesnake were both fairly abundant within the colonies. In a satirical article, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the Americas send rattlesnakes to Britain as a response to their sending of convicted criminals to the colonies.

Upon development, the flag was used by various groups within America. The Continental Marines is one of the most popular groups that used this flag, unfurling it side by side with the Moultrie flag. The United States Navy also utilized an earlier version of the flag.

Today, the flag is being used by the Tea Party Movement – which is why the symbol is currently getting some bad reputation. Still, the rattlesnake is still a powerful image and is actually being used by Nike in support of the US national soccer team for the males. Even the band Metallica has recorded a song entitled “Don’t Tread on Me.” Why Is This Important?

Other recent musical uses of the phrase have included Hal Meyer. Iced Earth, Kat and the Outlaws, Cro-Mags and Damn Yankees.

How do they stand against the Tea Party?

There is, of course, the further question of how able the EEOC is to judge our use of the English language in matters as complex as this.

We would much better spend our time reducing the number of blacks that cops kill.


Anonymous said...

Until the NAZIs appropriated the swastika, it too, was a benign symbol. In the Great Heartland, amid the savage cracker insanity, the Gadsden flag has found its way to a new prominence among those groups and organizations traditionally associated with the worst aspects of racism and bigotry. Those that display it do so with a clear intent as to its purpose and meaning, there is no mistaking it. Sam, if I were a person of color working for the New Haven Fire Department, I'd find such symbolism insulting, threatening, demeaning, and most certainly inappropriate for a work environment, especially in an environment where coworkers have to live in close proximity for extended periods of time.
As much as this may distress you, Sam, the Gadsden flag has now become part of the iconography of bigotry and hate, thus rendering it as appropriate for workplace display as a swastika. Do you also argue for that?

Anonymous said...

"In light of the ambiguity in the current meaning of this symbol,..."

There is no ambiguity about its meaning these days in cracker land and among certain extremists elements.

To be insistent upon its display while cognisant and insensitive of the degree to which others might derive discomfort and distress says a lot about the jerk defending the stupid hat. Of course, New Haven isn't exactly a bastion of racial tolerance, so should any of this be surprising? In point of fact, through my travels across the breadth of the United States, my experience and observations have been that in its own way New England rivals the deep South in terms of prejudice. Sam, perhaps living in Maine is starting to take hold of your sensibilities, you're bordering a bit on the bigot side yourself on this one.