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raceAhead: New Lawsuit Alleges Racist Harassment at an Ohio GM Plant

General Motors logo covered in snow.General Motors logo covered in snow.
While the company disputes the charges, the Toledo Powertrain plant as faced similar allegations in the past.Jeff Kowalsky—AFP/Getty Images

It got so bad, someone even hung a noose. Five of them, actually.

This is one of the shocking allegations in a new suit filed by eight black supervisors from GM’s Toledo Powertrain plant in Ohio. They were told to by their subordinates to “go back to Africa,” and called “monkey” and “boy.” Bathrooms were declared “whites only.” Threats involving the Klan were invoked. White workers were inked with hate symbols.

The white workers called their black supervisors “Dan”—which the plaintiffs initally thought was just disrespect. Turns out, it was an acronym for “dumb ass nigger.”

Simple exchanges like vacation day negotiations, found angry white workers spinning into rages. There were rumors of planned ambushes and gun violence. Then the nooses started coming.

Upper management did nothing, they say.

According to this report from CNN, the Toledo Powertrain plant is well known to Ohio officials. Other employees complained to the police about nooses and gun threats, and an investigation by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission found strong evidence that despite cursory efforts at training, GM was allowing a racially hostile workplace environment.

One former union president told the commission about a meeting to address the racist incidents where a white supervisor said the nooses weren’t a big deal and that “there was never a black person who was lynched that didn’t deserve it.”

GM declined CNN’s request for an interview but did issue a statement explaining that they closed the plant for a day to have training for every shift after the noose complaint. “We treat any reported incident with sensitivity and urgency, and are committed to providing an environment that is safe, open and inclusive.(Fortune has reached out for additional comment and will update this story accordingly.)

But Dennis Earl, who works at the plant and was elected UAW local president in 2017, told CNN that nope, there’s no racism anymore. “Do I believe people are a little too sensitive these days? Absolutely,” he said. “What passed 20 years ago doesn’t pass today.”

“You can’t say the things you used to say off the cuff. It doesn’t excuse it, but it’s not racially motivated statements,” he added. “It’s just bad judgment.”

It’s the bad judgment that has extended the caste system of Jim Crow into the workplace, the financial system, the criminal justice system and beyond.

It’s the bad judgment that has enabled a black wealth gap so profound that black men, like GM plaintiff Derrick Brooks, a former Marine with eight kids, had to do some terrifying math before he finally decided to flee the six-figure job he earned.

“How rough and tough can you be when you got 11 to 12 people who want to put a noose around your neck and hang you ’til you’re dead?” Brooks told CNN.

The Atlantic’s Vann Newkirk makes an optimistic case that the wealth gap—the inevitable outcome of decades of unwelcoming workplaces, discriminatory lending, and other enduring racist practices, might become a core issue in the 2020 presidential race.

For one thing, Senator Elizabeth Warren explicitly mentioned how people of color were unable to reach middle-class status in her opening bid.

“With surging black and Latino voting power offering new pathways to victory in 2020, candidates might feel more compelled than in past races to offer bold strategies to fix the enduring economic legacy of white supremacy,” he notes.

I’d like that to be true. In the meantime, we will still be arguing about whether it’s racism or just bad manners.

Vox’s Jane Coaston nails it.

“The way we talk about race and racism is wrong,” she writes in a must-read analysis on why Iowa Rep. Steve King is finally being held accountable. “In short, we think of ‘racist’ as an insult rather than as an adjective. And we have narrowed down the concept of racism to an almost ludicrous extent, in effect often excusing real racism.”

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Quote

As a small child, I would communicate to my family, or at least those who didn’t mind being embarrassed by my stutter or my being embarrassed. I did communicate with the animals quite freely, but then that’s calling the hogs, the cows, the chickens. They don’t care how you sound, they just want to hear your voice… In Sunday school, I’d try to read my lessons and the children behind me were falling on the floor with laughter… by the time I got to school, my stuttering was so bad that I gave up trying to speak properly.
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