Racist Abuse of African Employee Costs NYU $210K

New York University, the largest private university in the United States, has agreed to pay an African employee a $210,000 settlement in a racial and national origin harassment suit. Osei Agyemang, who is from Ghana, filed a case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2010 that described him being verbally abused by a former mail room supervisor of NYU’s Bobst Library. Agyemang worked there under these hostile conditions between July 2007 and January 2009, during which time he was repeatedly called a ‘gorilla’ among other insults. Agyemang attempted to find relief from these abuses through proper NYU channels, but nothing was done to help him until his request for a transfer was granted. The New York Daily News reports:

An African immigrant received a $210,000 payout from NYU after his abusive mailroom supervisor repeatedly ridiculed him as a “monkey” and a “gorilla.”

“Do you want a banana?” his boss asked NYU employee Osei Agyemang in one of many racist remarks reportedly made to the native of Ghana from July 2007 through January 2009.

The boss mocked the immigrant’s accent as “gibberish,” while telling him “go back to your cage” and “go back to the jungle,” according to a September 2010 suit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The settlement between the Manhattan university and the one-time worker at the Bobst Library was made public yesterday.

“This suit shows that ugly harassment and retaliation can happen anywhere, even at a prestigious university,” said EEOC attorney Gilliam Thomas, who represented Agyemang.

The EEOC release regarding the settlement further explains that the $210,000 sum granted represents “lost wages and compensation for the emotional distress” suffered by Agyemang. NYU will also be required to update its policies and procedures for dealing with racial and nation of origin harassment in a process that will be monitored by the EEOC.

Still, NYU calls the situation Agyemang suffered through unusual for the university. Spokesman John Beckman stressed to the press that the harassing employee is no longer with the school, adding: “Such behavior is extremely rare here, and totally at odds with the spirit of diversity and tolerance for which NYU is rightly known.”

How would he know, when Agyemang’s original complaints failed to make it up NYU’s chain of command or effect change? It is curious to ponder how shunting of the needs of a black immigrant to the back burner of NYU administrative concerns fits in with Beckman’s rosy presentation of the school. This was an action that reminds one of a time in the south when blacks had to sit at the back of the bus — a dismissive gesture that perpetuates racism by turning a blind eye to demeaning behaviors.

NYU, a lauded institution and one of the top-ten employers in the city, might have diversity and tolerance as ideals — and want to continue being seen that way. But in daily operations we all know that high ideals are often the first “luxury” to get cut in the name of efficiency and expediency. Institutions of higher learning are run more like hard-nosed businesses today than ever, which are known more for exploiting the weak than serving righteous causes.

By speaking up, Agyemang has forced NYU to truly examine the ideals it claims to hold. The settlement NYU reached with him and the EEOC will force the school to do a better job at upholding them. Much more meaningful than an NYU spokesman’s empty words.

Just like the recent case of the African man who is suing after being jailed for trying to cash his own check at a Chase, these efforts to fight the power are necessary. These cases prove time and again that institutions, however much they believe they can operate idealistically, cannot be trusted to police their own ideals regarding racial equality. Unfortunately, for now law suits are a critical tool in our nation’s arsenal against continuing race-based inequality.

And people wonder why we need affirmative action in education. NYU’s settlement with Osei Agyemang demonstrates why even a liberal college cannot break free of racist influences without policy-driven assistance.

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