B&B Partner David E. Belfort was recently invited by “The Boston Globe” (‘Globe’) to comment on a case involving a claim of reverse race discrimination where a white applicant was asked in her job interview about the impact of “white privilege” on her ability to perform the job.
In the March 9, 2022 issue of The Globe, Attorney Belfort was quoted in Tonya Alanez’s article entitled, “Faculty applicant sues Bridgewater State, saying she was asked to defend her ‘whiteness’”. The article stemmed from a filing by Donna Johnston at the state’s anti discrimination agency, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) against Bridgewater State University. Ms. Johnston’s charge alleges “race and employment discrimination” due to a “racist interview” where, she was asked about her “white privilege.” Ms. Johnston was not hired by the University and instead, the job went to two Caucasians and an African-American woman.
It has been long held that applicants and employees in Massachusetts are protected from adverse action on the basis of your race, whether they are White, Black, or some other race. In her lawsuit, Ms. Johnston claims that she was treated unfairly during the interview due to “reverse racism.” Interestingly, the University’s hiring of two Caucasians for the position will certainly be highlighted by the Respondents as rebutting allegations of discriminatory intent. The University will undoubtedly argue that whiteness did not play any role in the hiring decision as exemplified by two of the three ultimate hires’ races. Attorney Belfort cautioned against the use of race as a proxy in any interview process. “To ask about somebody’s whiteness, that implies that the color of their skin is the consideration, or the problem,” Belfort said. “Privilege in general might be a legitimate consideration, but white privilege? Why bring white into it? The white part is what makes it potentially illegal.”
The University has some additional defenses beyond the race of those it hired – it argues in the MCAD position statement that the question posed to Ms. Johnston was meant to give the University an idea as to how her prior life experience would help to overcome issues that may arise as a teacher at a public university with a diverse student body. The University will try to prove that Complainant’s interview answers failed to meet the standards of the school, and that Ms. Johnston “lacked expertise and live classroom experience and failed to present herself as student focused[.]“ The University will try to show that it is for those reasons, and not her “whiteness” that they ultimately passed on hiring Ms. Johnston.
The case was withdrawn from MCAD and suit was filed in Plymouth County Superior Court. We will monitor developments in this fascinating case and update this blog accordingly.