ACLU in Labor Board fight after firing of Asian American lawyer over alleged racism

ACLU in Labor Board fight after firing of Asian American lawyer over alleged racismACLU in Labor Board fight after firing of Asian American lawyer over alleged racism
via Andrew Neel on Unsplash
Michelle De Pacina
April 24, 2024
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fired a Korean American employee over allegations of racial bias, leading to controversy and an unfair labor practice case being filed against them by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Key points:
  • Kate Oh, who had been a lawyer for the ACLU, was terminated in May 2022 over accusations of racial bias. She was accused of serious misconduct by the ACLU, with her complaints about several Black superiors being labeled as using “racist stereotypes.”
  • The incident sparked internal disputes and raised concerns about diversity and inclusion within the organization.
  • The ACLU faced criticism for its handling of the situation and its commitment to racial equity, with some critics viewing it as diverging from its core mission of defending free speech.
  • The NLRB is accusing the organization of retaliating against Oh. A trial took place in Washington last month. 
The details:
  • During her five-year tenure at the ACLU, Oh was known for her outspoken criticism of her superiors, frequently addressing what she saw as a hostile workplace environment through lengthy emails to human resources.
  • Oh considers herself a whistleblower and advocate for women in the office, highlighting issues of sexism, heavy workloads and a fear-based culture. Despite this, Oh was accused of willful anti-Black animus in her language and behavior, leading to her firing.
  • According to court documents, Oh told a Black superior that she was “afraid” to talk with him, described a conversation with a manager as “chastising” and used a satirical phrase comparing her bosses’ behavior to giving “beatings.”
  • However, the question of whether Oh’s language constituted racism or was merely harsh criticism of her bosses is the focus of an unusual unfair labor practice case filed against the ACLU by the NLRB.
Legal proceedings:
  • In the next months, a judge will decide whether the ACLU was justified in terminating Oh. If the ACLU loses, potential outcomes include reinstatement for Oh or payment of restitution.
  • The ACLU argues for a broad interpretation of racist or racially coded speech, stating that the impact of Oh’s actions caused real harm to Black colleagues, regardless of her intent.
  • However, Oh’s attorney contends that her complaints were about her supervisors and were not racially motivated.
Ongoing debate: 
  • The ACLU maintains that workplace standards have evolved, emphasizing the impact of language on feelings of belonging and civil workplace conduct.
  • However, Oh’s case raises questions about the extent of protection for employee speech and behavior under labor law, particularly in the context of workplace conduct and racial sensitivity.
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