Sunday, 29 May 2011

No more 'yes massa': Institutional Racism Destroys Lives.

Gregory Lewis meeting Reverend Jesse Jackson
(Rev Jesse Jackson has spoken out against the low number of black students at Oxford) 
Last year I was contacted by a black chef, Gregory Lewis who worked at New College, Oxford University for eight years. He was treated extremely badly and there was clearly racial discrimination involved.  The director of the Race Equality Council in Oxford advised him to take a claim to Employment Tribunal, which he did.  He was unable to access legal assistance. Gregory contacted me because he could not understand why the case, which found in New College’s favour, seemed to have been conducted in a way that seemed to practically ignore the evidence they presented, whilst overlooking lies, inconsistencies and a total disregard for equality legislation on the part of New College.
The legal process has been a long drawn out one. Gregory has been suffering from depression and anxiety caused by the racial discrimination he experienced since October 2008 and the stress of legal proceedings has exacerbated his condition.  
New College staff blatantly lied under oath during the tribunal hearing last July. The HR Officer had no idea of what the specific duties of Higher Education Establishments were under the RRA (amendment) 2000. There was no monitoring in place to ensure there was no racial discrimination in any of their policies, such as disciplinary action, access to training and promotion; the only equal opportunities monitoring with regard to racial group that New College had in place, was a tick box on their application form. 
Gregory Lewis had been interviewed for the role of head chef, after being a second chef at Oxford University for twenty years, eight of those at New College.  There had never been a black head chef at an Oxford University college. At that time, as second chef, Gregory held the highest position of any member of staff. (He was acting head chef for over a year).  There were no black fellows, tutors or managers. They interviewed him along with other candidates, none of whom were taken on. New College management advised Gregory to go on a course to better his chances of getting the still vacant, head chef’s position.  They did not offer him to go on this course before the interview, but during cross examination, the catering manager said that he ‘would not have employed anyone who did not have the qualification already ‘unless they were a Jamie Oliver’, so the interview was a farce unless they believed that a black chef might at any time morph into a white TV chef!
While he was away on the course (and still acting head chef as far as he knew), the college took on a new white head chef through the back door without even letting Gregory know, totally humiliating him in front of his colleagues. The message was clear: the black man does not deserve any respect.  The person they took on had not even made the shortlist for the original interview.
 The original interview notes (received during legal proceedings) made rude comments about Gregory Lewis that were clearly based on racial stereotyping, making him out to have a slave mentality and unable to follow instructions or understand what they were asking of him. This was a chef that had won many awards during his time working at Oxford University colleges and received many compliments in writing from important guests.
New College management embarked on a series of actions designed to intimidate Gregory and force him out of his job. In the end he was too ill to work and they dismissed him on grounds of medical capability.
The judge and lay members at the Employment Tribunal in Reading were dismissive of the evidence given that management had racially stereotyped Gregory, and the judge said that ‘being lazy and stupid is not a stereotype of a black man’. Evidence was provided to show this, but it was ignored. Gregory had a long list of grievances but the tribunal judge and panel skimmed over them and let New College and their representative dictate what was mentioned.  When I met him he was mentally and physically exhausted by the whole process and had lost complete faith in the system that was supposed to protect him from racial discrimination. I told him to keep fighting; the truth was on his side and the law was supposed to be as well! 
I helped him to set up a campaign to highlight the racial discrimination at Oxford University colleges. This was before David Lammy exposed Oxford University’s appalling record on admitting black students and employing black fellows.  Freedom of Information requests uncovered the fact that many colleges were flouting equality laws and were, in some cases, arrogantly unconcerned about it.  EHRC, on receiving the information provided by Gregory, wrote to Oxford University’s Vice Chancellor telling him to remind Oxford colleges, which are autonomous, of their duties under equality law.
When Gregory Lewis received the judgement from the Employment Tribunal in writing, he was shocked to find that not only had the judge disregarded what he had said about racial stereotyping, he had substituted his own racial stereotype, saying that he thought he was stereotyped as a black Caribbean man as being ‘laid back to the extreme’!
At the London Employment Appeal Hearing last week, the judge and panel were not impressed that the Reading Employment Tribunal judge and panel, regularly hearing cases of racial discrimination, appeared to have little understanding of racial stereotyping. (The lay members at Reading had agreed with the judge that being lazy and stupid was not a racial stereotype of a black man).The Employment Appeal Tribunal were also concerned that the case appeared to have been tried as an unfair dismissal case with little regard to the racial discrimination side of the case.
I would like to know what training Employment Tribunal judges and lay members have with regard to equal opportunities and race issues. If they are as ignorant on race issues, as those that conducted Gregory Lewis’s case, it is no wonder that so few people are successful in bringing racial discrimination cases against their employer.  Employment law is a totally uneven playing field, with claimants having little access to legal assistance and employers like those from Oxford University having unlimited funds to fight their victims.  I understand why most of them give up, the threats of costs and the stress is unbearable in a lot of cases. 
The Employment Appeal Tribunal has confirmed that the case of Gregory Lewis V New College, Oxford University will be subject to a full Appeal Hearing in London.  I will be right beside him.  Nothing will change until we insist that the laws against racial discrimination are upheld. Black people suffering racial discrimination at work should not be experiencing it all over again in the Employment Tribunals and courts that are their only recourse.  
Unfortunately, Gregory’s situation is not unfamiliar.  I have spoken to many black people, who have experienced similar treatment when applying for promotion. We as a people should be long past the stage where, when trying to progress through hard work and dedication, we are regarded as ‘uppity’ and expected to shuffle our feet, say ‘yes massa’, and be grateful for whatever lowly position these institutionally racist employers decide we are good enough for.
 Lee Jasper

UPDATE: Gregory Lewis won his appeal at the Employment Appeal Tribunal on October 14th 2011. The case is being remitted to be heard in front of a new panel at the Employment Tribunal.
Racism is some Oxford University students idea of fun: Oxford students at a 'safari bop'