Racial discrimination comes in many forms and, following a recent opinion from the Second Circuit, discrimination due to an employee’s interracial relationship is one of them.
Employment discrimination laws prohibit employers from making decisions based on race, gender, religion, disability, and certain other characteristics. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, these laws have addressed discrimination based on the characteristic of the employee. But lately there has been an increase in cases of “associational discrimination.”
Associational Discrimination 101
In this new genre of discrimination law, the focus is not on the characteristic of the employee, but on a person or persons with whom the employee associates. In other words, let’s say that your parents were Jewish and all of their friends were Jewish but you had converted to were Christianity in college.
And let’s say that your employer fired you–not because he thought you were Jewish, but because of your association with your Jewish friends and family. That is an example of associational discrimination. The discrimination stemmed not from your religion but from the religion of the people with whom you associate.
A recent case from the Second Circuit–the first of its kind–held that associational violation occurs when an employee is fired for his interracial marriage.
Holcomb v. Iona College (2nd Cir.)
Facts of the Case
The case is Holcomb v. Iona College, decided on April 1. Holcomb was a basketball coach at Iona College in New York. He claimed that a college official, Brennan, tried to prevent Holcom’s wife, who was Black, from attending public alumni functions , and that Brennan had made racially derogatory comments about some of the Black players.
Another college official, Petriccone, also made offensive racial comments about Black players in the basketball program. As the Second Circuit put it, “Colleagues at Iona testified to Petriccione’s record of what might, charitably, be called racial insensitivity. Egregiously in this respect, Petriccione is said to have referred to a Nigerian employee at the Alumni Giving Office as a ‘jungle bunny’ and an ‘African princess.’ When that member of staff applied to his office for the position of Assistant Director of Annual Giving, he remarked: ‘[W]hat does she think she is coming from a hut in Africa and thinking she could apply for this job?’”
In addition, when Petriccione found out that Holcomb was marrying an African-American woman, he allegedly made a comment so offensive comments that it won’t be posted here.
Iona College eventually fired Holcomb, explaining that his termination had to do with his poor job performance. After the district court granted summary judgment to the college,the Second Circuit remanded on appeal.
The Court’s Decision
The court’s discussion set forth the associational-discrimination analysis. Here is the play-by-play:
- Protected Class. The Court held that Holcomb was a member of a “protected class” under Title VII. Although Holcomb was not Black, his wife was, and there was evidence that his interracial marriage was the reason for his termination.
- Interracial Association. The Court reasoned that, “where an employee is subjected to an adverse action because an employer disapproves of interracial association, the employee suffers discrimination because of the employee’s own race.” All the district judges in this circuit to consider the question, including the district court in this case, have reached that conclusion.”
- Pretext Evidence. As noted above, there was plenty of evidence from which the Court could conclude that the reasons given for Holcomb’s termination were a mere pretext for race-based discrimination. Another piece of evidence to support Holcomb’s claim was that O’Driscoll, the white staff member who replaced Holcomb, was the only white member of the staff without a Black girlfriend or wife.
This decision from the Second Circuit does not necessarily address a novel issue of law. Associational discrimination had previously been addressed by district courts within the Circuit. But the clarity of the Court’s opinion in Holcomb very clearly sets the groundwork for similar future claims.