In NYC, Trying to Get Victims to Report Discrimination

About 3,100 Muslim, Arab, South Asian, Jewish, and Sikh New Yorkers were surveyed by the city’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR) about whether they had suffered discrimination, harassment, or acts of hate between mid-2016 and late last year. The findings, released by Human Rights Commissioner Carmelyn P. Malalis on June 19, show that xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are a troubling and continuing part of daily life – even in a city as seemingly welcoming of religious and ethnic diversity as New York. What’s more, many victims seem loath to report their experiences or press claims against perpetrators.

Among the findings: Nearly two in five (38.7 percent) of survey respondents reported having experienced verbal harassment, threats or taunting referring to race, ethnicity or religion, and about one in four said they had experienced it more than once since July 2016. One in 10 Arabs surveyed reported physical assault, and one in four Muslim Arab women wearing a hijab had been pushed or shoved intentionally on a subway platform. Among Sikh men or boys, 13.7 percent experienced physical assault. Discrimination in the workplace, taking the form of everything from being prevented from observing religious practice to being told to give up wearing religious clothing, to being fired, was reported by 16.6 percent of respondents. Not being hired because of race, ethnicity or religion was more common among Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish respondents compared to respondents who were not Orthodox or Hasidic (55.6 percent vs. 22.8 percent).

Beyond the documentation of such bias incidents, though, the study provides a disturbing account of some of the consequences. Among individuals who experienced verbal harassment of family or friends, 26.1 percent screened for “probable depression,” while among those who experienced physical assault of family or friends, 36.7 percent screened for “probable depression.” These rates are double the rates of probable depression reported for individuals who did not experience these incidents.

The statistics in the study “are not quite surprising” to people at the commission, said Malalis. “Even though you see and you have staff that experience these types of cases coming in every day, it’s still arresting to know that there are this many people experiencing the range of different types of discrimination and harassment that we catalog in the report.”

Also troubling to Malalis is the fact that fully 71 percent of respondents who experienced discrimination did not bother to report the experience.  The number “pushes us in ways that we need to be pushed, both in government as well as with our partners within the community to be thinking about ways that we can help people to feel more comfortable coming forward and reporting these incidents.”

The commission has more than 850 claims currently being investigated by their law enforcement bureau, and Malalis stressed that the CHR has a range of remedies at its disposal from directing that personal and compensatory damages be paid in cases of emotional distress, and back pay and other remedies in connection with employment discrimination. It also has the ability to direct civil penalties in cases, up to $250,000 in civil penalties per some discriminatory acts.

The study recommended the creation of a commission-led pilot referral network of community and faith-based organizations to educate individuals about their rights and explain how to file a bias complaint to the commission. Leaders of these organizations, including Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, African Communities Together, the Sikh Coalition, the NY chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Arab American Association of NY and the Arab American Family Support Center (AAFSC), spoke at the Tuesday briefing, which was held in Brooklyn at the AAFSC offices.

Beyond such work with community advocacy groups, though, Malalis and others urged that bystander intervention training, for city employees and others, be undertaken to help citizens who witness a bias incident learn how to de-escalate such situations. Commenting at the briefing on the study and its recommendations, Bitta Mostofi, commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, said: “We have work to do, and that came clearly from this report. While all of the communities have made their voices heard and spoken up about their experiences, they’ve also said that they haven’t been reporting them. So for us that means we fundamentally have more work to do to push back against policies and rhetoric that will make us more unsafe and make people more fearful of coming forward.”

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