US government routinely sues companies for language that mirrors Trump's racist 'go back' tweets

Several companies have been sued over employees who have used the phrase.

July 17, 2019, 5:01 PM

"Go back to Africa."

That was the insult that Ebrima Jallow said he heard repeatedly from his supervisor and fellow co-workers while working at the Walmart in Landover Hills, Maryland.

Despite his recent promotion to the position of Asset Protection Coordinator, overseeing security and theft prevention efforts at the facility, Jallow said the attacks he faced were relentless, according to a lawsuit filed on his behalf by the federal government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2013.

Jallow, a Muslim who was born in Gambia, accused his store manager and fellow co-workers of repeated instances of harassment and intimidation based on his national origin and religion.

In meetings and day-to-day interactions with fellow employees, Jallow said he was mocked for his accent and told that "all Muslims do is blow up buildings and people."

Employees also allegedly told him he should "go back to Africa."

After reporting the harassment, Jallow alleged he was retaliated against and put on a one-year "coaching period" where other employees were told not to work with him.

Following a nearly two-year court battle, Jallow was paid $75,000 in damages from Walmart, and in a settlement the company committed to providing anti-discrimination and harassment training to employees.

PHOTO: President Donald Trump answers questions from the media during an event on the South Lawn of the White House, July 15, 2019.
President Donald Trump answers questions from the media during an event on the South Lawn of the White House, July 15, 2019.
Leah Millis/Reuters

Some Republican leaders have rushed to President Donald Trump's defense following his use of an age-old racist trope to attack four minority Congresswomen -- saying they should "go back" to their countries of origin. And in interviews with several of Trump's supporters planning to attend his campaign rally in Greenville, North Carolina, on Wednesday, many said they took no issue with the president's comments.

"I've been saying it for years," Michael Audette, a resident from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks as Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib listen during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol, July 15, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks as Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib listen during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol, July 15, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

But the insult has been referred to in numerous court cases brought by the government over the past decade as a textbook definition of illegal harassment in the workplace.

Eric Bachman, a former Department of Justice Civil Rights Division prosecutor who specializes in anti-discrimination cases, told ABC News that the president's tweets would be "as close to a slam-dunk discriminatory claim as you can get" if he had uttered them as the head of a private company rather than as chief executive of the United States.

"Frankly, if there was a board of directors, they would be taking action to fire him if he were the president of a company," Bachman said. "This would almost certainty violate Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a host of other civil rights-related laws."

"Just his statements alone, would be really strong evidence of a hostile work environment that he treats employees who are not white differently than he would treat white employees," Bachman added.

In the days since the president's tweet, civil rights groups have pointed out the sordid history of the "go back to where you came from" racial epithet and its expansion as an insult beyond immigrant groups to anyone who may be a person of color.

"National origin discrimination involves treating people (applicants or employees) unfavorably because they are from a particular country or part of the world, because of ethnicity or accent, or because they appear to be of a certain ethnic background (even if they are not)," EEOC spokesperson Kimberly Smith-Brown said in a statement, emailed to ABC News on Wednesday.

The EEOC, which declined to comment directly on the president's tweets, is the federal entity tasked with carrying out enforcement of the nation’s workplace anti-discrimination laws.

Below are just a few examples of cases that the EEOC has pursued in the last 15 years in which alleged harassment from employees mirrored the language from the president's tweets. Except where identified, the cases primarily resulted in settlements where the companies were not compelled to admit to any wrongdoing.

1) California hospital settled lawsuit in 2012 for nearly $1 million after Filipino-Americans said they were told to go back to the Philippines, among other instances of harassment

The EEOC brought a lawsuit on behalf of nearly 70 Filipino-American hospital workers at California's Delano Regional Medical Center who reported that they were subject to harassment and discrimination based on their national origin. The workers alleged that fellow staffers "constantly made fun of their accents," and some "were told to go back to the Philippines."

The EEOC argued that the employees' conduct violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the hospital settled the case for $975,000, distributed between the approximately 70 employees, while committing to develop stronger anti-harassment rules in the hospital.

2) Nevada U-Haul company sued in 2006 after Hispanic workers were told "go back to Mexico"

In 2006, the EEOC brought a lawsuit against a U-Haul company in Nevada where it charged that Hispanic and Asian/Filipino employees were being subject to bigoted harassment based on their race and/or national origin. The Hispanic employees reported that they were told by some of their fellow employees to "go back to Mexico."

The Nevada U-Haul company settled the case for $153,000 and agreed to provide discrimination prevention training to its employees.

3) Car dealership sued in 2004 by a Muslim immigrant from India who said he was told by his coworkers that he should "just go back where [he] came from"

The Houston office of the EEOC brought a lawsuit in 2004 against a car dealership, accused by a former Muslim immigrant employee of subjecting him to a hostile work environment. The man, Mohammad Rafiq, said he was fired for complaining about his supervisors and fellow employees' behavior, alleging that they had told him, "This is not your Islamic state or your India, where you came from," and that a separate colleague had specifically asked him, "Why don't you go back to where you came from since you believe what you believe?"

The company eventually settled the lawsuit as it started to move its way up through the appeals process. They signed a consent decree that required them to make annual compliance reports, apologize and pay $13,500 in damages to Rafiq and provide training to employees.

4) In 2011, New York University settled a lawsuit for $210,000 after African employee called "monkey" and told to "go back to the jungle"

The EEOC announced in 2011 that it had settled a lawsuit with New York University over complaints from an employee, who was a native of Ghana, that said he had been called a "monkey," and told to "go back to the jungle" by a mailroom supervisor. The university agreed to pay the employee $210,000 in lost wages and compensation for the moral distress from the harassment, and also committed to initiating "university-wide enhanced policies and compliant procedures" intended to prevent further, similar harassment from taking place.

"Harassment based on national origin and race is still all too common in today’s workplace," Elizabeth Grossman, regional attorney of the EEOC New York District Office said in a statement announcing the settlement. "EEOC will continue to aggressively expose and remedy such conduct, no matter where it occurs. No employer is above the law."

5) California restaurant paid $165,000 to a dining room manager who was told to "go back to your country"

In 2007, the EEOC sued the California restaurant Albion River Inn after an Arab restaurant manager was fired for refusing to apologize to a customer who had told him to "go back to [his] country." The dining manager said in the suit he was sticking up for a waiter from Tunisia who the customer had physically pushed and was berating for his limited English-speaking abilities. When the customer returned to the restaurant the next evening, the manager asked him not to continue his harassment of his employees -- but the customer allegedly responded by attacking the manager's national origin, saying among other insults, "I fought two wars to get rid of people like you!"

After firing the manager for refusing to write an apology note to the customer, the restaurant agreed to pay $165,000 in relief and committed to give employees non-discrimination training.

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