Two African-American employees at two major Hawaii employers.
Two discrimination lawsuits.
Though the cases started several years apart, they share similar characteristics.
Both employees say they complained to management about racial discrimination in their respective workplaces. One was at Hawaiian Airlines, the other at The Queen’s Medical Center.
They both sought help from their employers’ human resources departments.
And despite such efforts, they both subsequently found nooses — one was an actual noose, the other an image of one — on or next to their workplace lockers.
Two months before discovering the noose image taped to her locker, the Queen’s employee found a vulgar, racist, sexist note in her work mailbox, referring to her as a lazy b—— and n——. It was unsigned.
Both workers filed lawsuits that are pending in state court. The lawsuits emphasize the powerful symbolism of nooses to black Americans, bringing to mind an ugly national history of slavery and lynchings at the hands of whites.
The two cases reflect what some civil rights attorneys and others say are shifting attitudes in Hawaii.
With a volatile political climate nationally and race issues triggered by President Donald Trump as a backdrop, people with racist tendencies think they have more leeway to say or do things that are racially offensive, according to those who deal with race relations.
“Some people feel emboldened now because they have a president who denigrates people due to their race or color,” said Daphne Barbee-Wooten, president of the African American Lawyers Association of Hawaii. Wooten is not involved with either of the noose cases.
In the context of a noxious national climate, experts say, it’s not surprising that the Proud Boys, a right-wing nationalist group, has appeared at rallies around Oahu or that “Black Lives Don’t Matter” graffiti has been found on the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii.
“It’s so absolutely bizarre,” Noel Kent, a professor in UH’s Ethnic Studies Department, said of the Proud Boys’ emergence in the islands. “I never thought it would happen. This isn’t Alabama or Virginia. This is Hawaii, a multicultural, multi-ethnic model. But they’re feeling emboldened.”
The election of the country’s first black president a decade ago injected race directly into the national political dialogue and gave license to some critics of President Barack Obama to start voicing racist rants.
In the years since, race also has played a prominent role in many police brutality cases across the country, spawning a “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Attorney Elizabeth Fujiwara, who has handled discrimination cases for more than 30 years and is representing the Hawaiian Air worker, said she is hearing from more people with race-based complaints and believes the increase is linked to what is happening on the national stage. This is the first time she has had a noose case.
“That’s what’s stunning,” Fujiwara said. “I attribute that to Trump.”
Others say the noose cases simply reflect
Hawaii’s long history of discrimination toward racial groups whose numbers generally are small, who have little political power and who often are perceived as outsiders or non-locals. That history, they add, belies Hawaii’s marketed image as the aloha state.
“It’s nothing new,” said Jonathan Okamura, a UH ethnic studies professor who has written about racism in the islands.
African-Americans and Micronesians especially, according to Okamura, are subjected to discrimination in the workplace, and employers often don’t do enough to address their concerns.
“It’s the smaller populations that are considered racial or cultural outsiders to Hawaii and whose complaints are not taken seriously by local supervisors,” he added.
The workplace data, however, do not reflect an increase in racial tensions.
Race-related employment discrimination complaints in general and those filed by black workers have not been on the rise in Hawaii, according to statistics from the past 10 years compiled by the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission.
Both categories hit peaks in 2010 and 2011 but have largely declined since. Some attorneys, however, contend the Trump effect will result in a rise in such complaints over the next few years.
What is clear from the data, though, is that black workers in Hawaii are more likely to file discrimination complaints than workers in general.
Even though African-Americans make up less than 3 percent of the workforce and of the state population, they filed an average of nearly 30 percent of the race-related employment discrimination complaints over the past decade, according to the commission data.
William Hoshijo, the commission’s executive director, said Hawaii over the years generally has had more sex and disability discrimination cases than race ones.
Hoshijo believes companies tend to place more emphasis on sex harassment issues. “There has been more training and policy development in that area and maybe less so on racial issues and discrimination,” he said.
Large employers in particular generally have detailed policies dealing with all forms of discrimination, though how effectively they enforce the rules can differ from employer to employer.
Several race experts and attorneys not connected to the Hawaiian Air and Queen’s cases said the use of such a hateful symbol as a noose was a clear sign that something was amiss in both workplaces.
‘I was afraid, shocked, nervous’
The Hawaiian Air case was the more recent one, with some of the incidents happening as Trump surged to win the Republican primary in 2016.
Timothy Degrate, who supervised a grounds crew that directed planes at airport gates on
Hawaii island, complained to management for months about a hostile work environment, including racial harassment, according to his lawsuit.
Despite the complaints, he found a noose fashioned from rope hanging on the locker next to his in August 2016.
The person using the adjacent locker, which unlike Degrate’s had a hook to hang the rope, said he believed the noose was intended to send a message to Degrate, according to the lawsuit.
Degrate, who grew up in Texas, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that to him the message was clear: Someone was threatening his life. “It was eerie, startling,” he said. “I was afraid, shocked, nervous.”
A clinical psychologist who worked on Degrate’s worker’s compensation claim concluded “in all medical probability” that an African-American finding a noose adjacent to his locker would be traumatized.
“There could be no question that the symbol of a noose for an African-American reminds them of their long history of racial harassment, victimization and, in some instances, murder,” the lawsuit quotes the unidentified psychologist as writing. “The event is akin to a person of Jewish heritage viewing a swastika affixed to their locker.”
Hawaiian Air spokesman Alex Da Silva declined to comment on the lawsuit but issued this statement:
“We are sorry that Mr. Degrate felt disrespected in any way. An independent investigation of Mr. Degrate’s allegations was unable to verify actions by specific individuals as described by Mr. Degrate, and we vigorously deny all allegations of workplace violence. Having said that, because Hawaiian Airlines is committed to maintaining a fair and safe work environment, we have taken additional efforts to improve workplace interaction at our Kona station, including mandatory staff-wide training on communicating and interacting with respect.”
Degrate currently is on leave from his job.
In the Queen’s case, Ellen Harris, the only black nurse in the hospital’s intensive care unit, was subjected to a hostile work environment, including racial harassment, for years up until she left the job following discovery of the noose image taped to her locker on Christmas Eve 2011, according to her complaint.
Even though she complained to her supervisors and the human resources department about the workplace harassment, it continued, culminating in the placement of the racist note and noose image, according to the lawsuit.
Two nurses who were Harris’ antagonists in the intensive care unit eventually were fired, not because of harassment but for stealing narcotics from patients who needed the drugs for pain, Harris alleged in the complaint.
Harris, who no longer works at Queen’s, could not be reached for comment, and her attorney, Carl Varady, declined comment. The case is scheduled to go to trial this week.
“Queen’s takes the safety of our patients, physicians and staff very seriously,” Queen’s spokesman Cedric Yamanaka wrote in a statement to the Star-Advertiser. “We do not tolerate any type of harassment or discrimination in our workplace, and this case is no exception. As soon as Queen’s was made aware of these allegations, we took immediate action including meeting with staff to review company anti-discrimination policies, thoroughly investigating the allegations, conducting anti-harassment training, notifying the Honolulu Police Department and the FBI, and cooperating with HPD and FBI investigations.”
Yamanaka said Queen’s intended to fire any responsible perpetrators, but no one, including the HPD and FBI, could determine who engaged in the anonymous conduct.
He declined further comment because of the pending litigation.