Chamber sides with bad guys


I am sure that in their personal lives, the good old boys and girls of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce are fine people -- loving and attentive parents, considerate neighbors, upstanding citizens.

But in Annapolis this year, the good old boys and girls of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce have sided with the bad guys.

Yesterday, for example, a legislative committee took testimony on a major civil rights bill introduced by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-City. The bill would enable victims of intentional employment discrimination to collect punitive and compensatory damages in civil court.

The Chamber opposed the bill.

Last week, a legislative committee considered a pair of bills that would remove the current cap on the amount of actual damages and lost wages a victim of discrimination can collect.

The Chamber opposed those, too.

In fact, there are at least half a dozen pieces of legislation in Annapolis this year that attempt to help victims of discrimination in the workplace and in public accommodations.

As far as I can tell, the Chamber opposes nearly every one.

That's bad. If this were a cartoon, members of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce would be under constant assault by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. If this were an old English legend, their backsides would be bristling with Robin Hood's arrows.

"We are not bad guys. Don't make us out to be bad guys," Chamber spokesman Stuart Y. Gordon said with fervor.

"My members are against employment discrimination. We want, just as everyone wants, to see everyone in the workplace treated fairly. But we don't believe these specific pieces of legislation are the way to accomplish it."

OK. Let's look at this, then, as a story of how otherwise nice people can find themselves on the side of villainy.

Rosenberg's bill would allow a victim of unlawful discrimination to seek compensatory and punitive damages of up to $300,000 in state Circuit Court. The bill specifies that for a person to qualify for such damages, the court would have to find that the discrimination was intentional as opposed to being the result of business practices that may have had an unintentional disparate impact on minorities.

Gordon said the Chamber is afraid the promise of a $300,000 payoff would unleash a flood of frivolous discrimination suits. He added that racist employers need understanding, not punishment.

"I honestly believe," he said, "that even when a person quote discriminates unquote, in the majority of the cases, he isn't being intentionally racist, sexist, or ageist. I think in the majority of the cases, he is merely reflecting the way he was brought up -- acting out of unconscious stereotypes.

"Is a bad ethnic joke necessarily malicious?" Gordon asked. "People like that aren't evil people, they just have bad conceptions. I think if you sit down with an employer, show him what he's done, work out a conciliation with him, you don't need to hammer him with damages. What we're saying, bottom line, is you can't change attitudes with a hammer."

Gordon has a point, of course. I'm all for education.

But sometimes particularly thick skulls need the special softening a hammer provides. Currently, there are no penalties, criminal or civil, for an employer who intentionally discriminates. No wonder skulls have gotten so thick.

More important, it simply is not true that people level charges of discrimination lightly. Discrimination cases have become so hard to take to court and so hard to prove once you get there that only the most egregious cases prevail. Most people, in fact, prefer to suffer in silence.

"Listen," said Michael Foreman, general counsel of the Maryland Human Relations Commission, "even if these cases weren't so hard to prove, I see no reason why the proven victim of deliberate, coldblooded discrimination should not be made whole, and why the employer should not be penalized."

I agree.

A racist, sexist pig of an employer certainly deserves our sympathy and understanding. He is ignorant, after all, and needs help.

But people's lives can be ruined by such ignorance. A racist's victims deserve all the protection and relief the law can provide.

Right now, we've got it backward. The racists get all the protection. The victims get the sympathy.

Anyone who can't see that has sided with the bad guys.

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