How Sexual Harassment Silences Black Women in the Workplace

Workers walk the assembly line at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant on Aug. 4, 2009. The Chicago plant was the subject of a New York Times exposé into systemic racial and sexual abuse suffered by Ford’s female workers. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Workers walk the assembly line at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant on Aug. 4, 2009. The Chicago plant was the subject of a New York Times exposé into systemic racial and sexual abuse suffered by Ford’s female workers. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Updated Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017, at 2:29 p.m. EST: The Ford Motor Co. sent The Root a statement responding to the New York Times report about allegations by female employees at the company’s Chicago plants of years of racial and sexual harassment.


“Ford does not tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination. We take those claims very seriously and investigate them thoroughly,” Ford wrote, adding that the company has a “comprehensive approach to prevent and address sexual harassment and discrimination” at its facilities, which includes anti-harassment training for all new hires and multiple channels to report violations.

“In addition, more than two years ago, we began taking further actions at our Chicago plants,” Ford wrote, listing a few of its initiatives, like providing “additional leadership and diversity training for all salaried employees.”

Some of these changes were listed in the original Times piece, although several of the Times’ sources told the paper that misconduct still occurs to this day. Others say that their previous experiences have them so shaken up, they still dread going to work.

Several others said that things really are getting better, including one woman who told the paper that “for the first time in years ... a manager was taking her complaints seriously.”


As is becoming customary in this news cycle, the New York Times published a harrowing investigation Tuesday that details years of sexual abuse endured by women—this time, those who worked at Ford Motor Co. plants in Chicago.


Unlike most mainstream articles on sexual harassment, this investigation, by Susan Chira and Catrin Einhorn, focused almost exclusively on black women.

The experiences that the Ford employees recount are appalling—and several are recent (the alleged abuses stretch from the 1990s to 2015). Their stories also illuminate something that hasn’t been talked about in the mainstream media’s coverage of #MeToo: the intersection of racial and sexual harassment that women of color, particularly black women, experience.


Take Suzette Wright, who was hired to work at the Ford Chicago Assembly plant in 1993:

As Ms. Wright [a recent employee] settled in, she asked a co-worker to explain something: Why were men calling out “peanut butter legs” when she arrived in the morning? He demurred, but she insisted. “He said, ‘Well, peanut butter,’” Ms. Wright recalled. “‘Not only is it the color of your legs, but it’s the kind of legs you like to spread.’”


Wright would end up becoming one of the female employees who sued the motor company; the Times notes that most of them were black.

Those accused of harassment include black, white and Latino men. Some of the women felt doubly victimized — propositioned and denounced as sluts while also being called “black bitches” and other racial slurs. (The assembly plant’s work force is predominantly African-American, while the stamping plant’s is majority white.)


The Chicago Assembly Plant and the Chicago Stamping Plant were especially volatile, the Times reports, due to “a mix of sex, swagger, suspicion and racial resentment.”

The company has been hit with multiple lawsuits over the past 20 years, the Times reports. In the ’90s, Ford was forced to pay out a $22 million settlement in response to multiple harassment claims. But the culture of abuse continued—the article notes that another $10 million settlement was reached in August of this year for sexual and racial harassment, with another suit still percolating through the courts.


Here’s another typical account that sums up how the complaints lodged by black women were frequently ignored or shushed:

Christie Van arrived at Chicago Assembly with the influx of transfers in 2012. She said a supervisor who had been giving her easy jobs like placing radiator caps began asking her to “play hooky” from work with him. She claimed that the man, Mike Riese, told her his preferred nickname: “He called himself White Chocolate. He said that he had a black man’s dick.”


Christie Van filed a complaint the same year after another supervisor showed her a picture of his dick on his phone. As the Times reports, company records show that “several co-workers denied her account and described her as disgruntled to Ford investigators.” But two other employees who could verify Van’s account were never questioned in Ford’s investigation.

Van’s complaint was never substantiated, and it took several other women accusing Riese of harassment before he was fired three years later, in 2015.


And what of the union, which is supposed to protect workers from these kinds of abuses? Here’s what happened when Wright, who had endured aggressive and persistent harassment, went to her union rep:

But after a man Ms. Wright had trusted as a mentor made a crack about paying her $5 for oral sex, she asked her union representative for help. He began what she calls a “don’t-file-a-claim-against-Bill” campaign: Her co-worker would lose his job, his benefits, his pension, she was told. Rumors spread, questioning their relationship. Then a union official delivered the final insult: “Suzette, you’re a pretty woman — take it as a compliment.”


Grant Morton, a union official who did try to keep the plant accountable, says he was discouraged by Ford managers from helping women submit harassment complaints, and claimed in a suit that management “retaliated against him” when he would bring complaints forward, the Times reports.

At play in the Ford case are multiple factors: Plant employees were especially vulnerable to their managers’ whims and behaviors, and there are class issues at play in the Ford case that are not true of other industries that have come to the fore in the wake of #MeToo (specifically, media and Hollywood).


But few other stories have focused so much on the experience of black women; nor have they captured the racial animosity that workers can be subjected to, on top of the horrendous sexual trespasses. As New York Times writer Jenna Wortham mentioned recently on Twitter, “When will it be time to figure out what a racial misconduct reckoning looks like?”


The Ford piece, along with Rebecca Carroll’s Esquire article about former news CBS anchor Charlie Rose, hints at the difficult space women of color occupy in these discussions. However, in the case of the Times investigation, the racial harassment comes off as a corollary to the sexual trespasses. We have still to dedicate space in the mainstream media to investigations of systemic racial misconduct—certainly not with the vigor and resources that have characterized recent inquiries into sexual abuse.

There is space—and it is necessary—to do both.

As the Ford case shows, women of color are particularly vulnerable as targets of both racial and sexual abuse. When they attempt to fight back, they’re met not just with silence but with aggressive attempts to put them in their place. And as Sharon Dunn, who sued Ford in the ’90s, told the Times, even when you win, nothing changes.


“For all the good that was supposed to come out of what happened to us, it seems like Ford did nothing,” Dunn told the Times. “If I had that choice today, I wouldn’t say a damn word.”

Read more at the New York Times.

Staff writer, The Root.


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“For all the good that was supposed to come out of what happened to us, it seems like Ford did nothing,” Dunn told the Times. “If I had that choice today, I wouldn’t say a damn word.”


It’s been shown time and time again that the micron-thin veneer of civility that a great many men cover their rancid, fetid true nature’s with will fall away as soon as the vermin get back to their hidey-holes.

If there is anything that I don’t understand about this, it is how women live through this. I know I wouldn’t be able to even try to be normal if it were me in these circumstances, but women do that and still look out for the very ones who most certainly would turn on them.

I also know that soon, some dude will chime in about how they are sorry, or didn’t notice, or didn’t believe. They will think that “both sides” need to come together on this.


We don’t need to negotiate on basic decency. I don’t need to hear “your side” on the issue. This isn’t about you and your distance from the problem. This isn’t about how your feelings are hurt. It isn’t about any superfluous damage your aura might have sustained, or any psychic damage you suffered on your end. I don’t want to wiegh options. The choice is to stop being this type of person, or admit that you have no issues with actual people being preyed upon if you aren’t directly involved.

If it is the latter, please be content to wallow in your swill until someone comes for you. Don’t waste the time it takes these ladies to scroll past your bullshit.