By Gloria J. Browne-Marshall
Racial harassment is illegal. Like sexual harassment, racial harassment is as old as freedom itself. With freedom there are those who cannot accept the equality of others. When the oppressed finally gain their rights under law then there will be an attempt, by some, to reduce those freedoms to mere words on paper. But, it’s illegal and there are ways to fight.
Racial harassment attempts to make those living while Black lives miserable. People entering their homes, eating dinner, mowing lawns, going to school, selling newspapers, candy, lemonade, water, driving, swimming, shopping, reading, walking, and sleeping living free lives as African-American people. These acts of micro-aggression against African-Americans, and other people of color, are incidents of racial harassment burdening millions in this country.
Racial harassment is not only wrong, it’s unconstitutional. It violates the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Law enforcement cannot be used to support or enforce private acts of discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled over 100 years ago that the government cannot be used by private citizens to discriminate against other private citizens.
Put simply, the police are government workers. No government agent can use their office or power to help a private person harass another private person. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government could not be used to enforce housing discrimination. Those rulings were applied to every area of American life. Therefore, law enforcement agents cannot be used to enforce racially discriminatory behavior between civilians.
The strategy is to fight against racial harassment, and law enforcement must be told that their involvement in private acts of this harassment violates the law. Then, lawsuits must be brought against local, state and federal agencies when they are used by private individuals to discriminate against persons based on their race.
Racial harassment occurs in places high and low. It happened to me in the United States Supreme Court. It was a humid day in Washington, DC. I sat in the press box of the high Court sweating and fanning. Despite my suit and heels, I had just run the four blocks from Union Station. With more than twenty minutes until the entrance of the justices, I hear.
“Must you do that?”
A older white female red-headed reporter frowned at me and stared hard at my make-shift fan. I hesitated, not wanting to start a scene. I was the only Black person in the press box that day.
“Yes,” I said, since I was still sweating. “I just ran from the train station.”
As I turned to speak to someone seated on the other side of me, I saw the red-headed reporter beckon to a U.S. Marshall stationed near the press entrance. Redhead whispered in his ear and within moments, this U.S. Marshall ordered me to stop fanning myself. I saw her give the Marshall a thumbs up. With this approval, he returned to his post, leaving me stunned, and other reporters a witness to racial harassment.
Like the majority of incidents of racial harassment reported in the media, this one involved a white woman. White women are using the police to racially harass Black women, men and children. Racial harassment by white women is disconcerting on many levels. Not the least, the fact that white women continue to be victimized by sexual harassment as they subject African-Americans to racial harassment.
As white women rise politically and economically, it does not bode well that white woman’s outsized role in the racial harassment of African-Americans, and Black women, in particular, is rarely discussed. The emotional and financial toll of racial harassment is largely ignored. But, over sixty percent of white female voters supported Donald Trump despite the evidence of sexual harassment. Donald Trump’s racially inflammatory rhetoric is blamed for the brazen rise in racially charged micro-aggressions.
Fighting racial harassment has been ongoing for centuries. In 1865, with the end of slavery, racial harassment in housing, the theater, in restaurants and on trains by private White individuals became the basis for lawsuits. It took 100 years for Congress to pass laws to end racial discrimination by private individuals in employment and housing. However, decades earlier, the Court ruled that civilians using the government to harass others based on their race violated the Constitution.
In 1868, the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses became a part of the U.S. Constitution. The government can discriminate. But, private citizens cannot use the government to discriminate. This year marks the 150th year of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although the Ku Klux Klan is marching in Washington, D.C. and incidents of racial harassment are rising. Now, as then, there are legal weapons to fight back.
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a legal correspondent covering the U.S. Supreme Court, a professor at John Jay College, and the author of “The Voting Rights War.” Gloria is writing her first novel of historical fiction.