Grandson of civil rights icon sues over racist workplace harassment
In November 2008, when Barack Obama made his famous election night victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, he invoked the story of a black woman who had lived through a century of struggle that had culminated with the first African American president.
Ann Nixon Cooper was then 106. In all those years, Obama said, she had experienced “the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress”.
The story of Ann Nixon Cooper has now taken a bitter turn. The terrible discrimination she endured in the segregated south of her youth – the name-calling, the bigotry, the persistent harassment – appears to have made a reappearance, directed this time against her grandson.
In 2007 and 2008 – at the very time Obama was making his historic run to the White House – Ann Nixon’s grandson, Michael Cooper, was allegedly suffering severe harassment at a scrap car dealership where he was working in Fayetteville, Georgia. According to a lawsuit he has filed with the superior court of Henry County, he was being racially taunted by his employer and some of his co-workers to a degree that would not have looked out of place in the Jim Crow era of the 1950s.
The lawsuit alleges that while he was working as a salesman of car parts at M&S Auto, he was frequently denigrated with racial slurs. One of his supervisors called him “black daddy” and Dan – an acronym for “dumb ass nigger”.
At other times he was called “stupid nigger” and “dumb fucking nigger”. The owner of the scrap yard, Michael Bell, was alleged to have called him “my nigger”, and shouted at him “get [your] fucking ass back down the hill” – a reference to the parts area of the yard.
Cooper’s lawsuit, first reported by Wonkette, includes 14 counts of alleged discrimination and harassment. The complaints range from race discrimination to intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligence.
Most disturbingly, court documents relate how one of his white co-workers was paid extra money on top of his wages specifically to harass Cooper. Patrick Pearson recalls in an affidavit lodged with the court a telephone conversation he had with Bell. “He told me to harass Mr Cooper, call him a nigger and treat him bad so Mr Bell could get rid of him. He told me he would pay me $500 per week extra to do this. I asked Mr Bell what if I say ‘no’, and Mr Bell told me I wouldn’t have a job. Because I needed my job, I did treat Mr Cooper badly.”
That involved calling him once a “dumb nigger”, and telling Cooper that when he saw a white man coming he was supposed not to show his teeth.
The lawsuit claims that the discrimination was not just verbal. At one point, when the business was said to be struggling, Bell cut the wages of all his workers by 10% – except Cooper, who had his money cut by 15%.Asked by Cooper’s lawyers whether he had any explanation for why he cut their client’s pay more than anyone else, Bell replied: “No.”
Then in August 2008, the day Cooper returned from sick leave having had a bout of West Nile virus, he was dismissed without explanation and replaced by a white worker.
In court papers setting out his defence, Bell denies the complaint that Cooper’s dismissal was racially motivated, saying it was prompted by his poor work performance resulting from a bad knee. “There is no evidence, direct or circumstantial, of race discrimination in the decision to terminate. … He was terminated because he was not able to work, a legitimate business reason unrelated to his race.”
Responding to the complaint of racial harassment, Bell’s lawyers argue that the race-based conduct that Cooper complains he was subjected to – including being called a nigger, black daddy and Dan – “is not so severe or pervasive as to constitute racial harassment”.
He insists that the decision to reduce Cooper’s wages by a greater factor than other employers was made for legitimate business reasons, and states that the alleged treatment “was not so extreme and outrageous as to constitute the intentional infliction of emotional distress.”
Cooper’s decision to sue M&S Auto has been made partly with the memory of Ann Nixon Cooper in mind. She died in 2009, 13 months after Obama’s speech. The lawsuit says: “That her grandson has had to suffer the outrageous conduct at issue in this case is an appalling irony.”
Matthew Billips, Cooper’s defence lawyer, told the Guardian: “I’m from the south, and it’s hard to describe the level of disgust that I feel when things like this happen. It confirms all the stereotypes that people have about the south, and it’s despicable.”
He said he would be pressing to take the case all the way to trial. “It would be good for Fayetteville, for Georgia and the south to hear a jury tell the world that this is not okay. That the people of this town do not think this is okay.”
Meanwhile, Bell has filed for summary judgment, asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit outright and grant costs to him.
[White and black man face one another via ArTono / Shutterstock]