In an age of so-called declining significance of race, the relaxation of civil rights enforcement and a general feeling that discrimination in employment is a thing of the past, there are an awful lot of people complaining about the way they are being treated at work these days.
There are racial discrimination lawsuits pending against many of the Washington area's most prestigious companies -- construction companies, law firms, supermarkets, newspapers, government agencies, you name it. And oddly enough most of them are recent allegations.
Take the case against the Potomac Electric Power Co., filed last week in the D.C. Superior Court. The charges against Pepco are not really unique, it's just that here is an example of yet another large employer that could not resolve a race-related problem.
So now it's into the courtroom, where the company must defend itself against a $10 million lawsuit filed by nine black employes. If past cases of this nature can be any guide, this procedure will take years to complete and those who made the complaints will probably be shuffled aside until they decide to leave.
And if, by any slim chance, they win, they will almost surely take the money and get as far from Pepco as possible. But what about those who must follow in their footsteps? Again, if past cases are any guide, Pepco may well decide that it doesn't want to risk another lawsuit and cut back on the number of blacks hired.
The lawsuit against Pepco alleges that the company engaged in a "practice" of racial discrimination by denying promotion and training opportunities to blacks, by paying black employes less than whites and by applying company policies in a harsher manner against blacks than whites.
It charges that Pepco managers acted as individuals and as "co-conspirators" to discriminate against the black employes on the basis of race and interfered with their civil rights by "engaging in systematic disparate treatment of blacks . . . ."
How the plantiffs intend to prove this is still unknown. Why they think that their treatement was based on race will certainly make for interesting courtroom proceedings.
To complicate matters more, Pepco -- like other companies facing such lawsuits -- appeared to be doing an exceptional job.
"Pepco has a record of achievement in equal opportunity that is second to none," said Bill Torgerson, Pepco's vice president for human resources, in an interview. "About 30 percent of our employes are black. In the last year or so, 34 percent of people promoted were black, over 40 percent hired were black and blacks are represented throughout management structure. We have an award-winning record."
How the plantiffs intend to prove their case is not clear; history teaches that it will not be easy. Unless they have squeaky clean employment records, employes will always be able to find a reason other than race for the way they were treated.
Yet, in such a conservative political climate, it was a bold move for a group of blacks to get together and challenge a major utility company -- although merely filing a lawsuit is far from proving a case against the defendant.
However, it does say that people are highly dissatisfied, and because of the growing numbers of such lawsuits, it also says that a lot of people are dissatisfied.
Regardless of how much corporate America thinks it has done for blacks, much discontent exists. Clearly, the problem of racial discrimination in employment has not gone away: Something is obviously wrong when so many people not only are complaining but are feeling that they must take their complaints to a judge and jury.