A Purdue University employee and student has been accused of racial harassment simply for reading a book. The book that got Keith Sampson into trouble was the critically acclaimed Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, which surveys Notre Dame and anti-Catholic bigotry during a troubled time in U.S. history.
First, a shop steward told Sampson that reading a book about the KKK was like bringing pornography to work (apparently this holds true in his eyes regardless of the context in which a book discusses the KKK, the position it takes, and so on). Likewise, a co-worker who happened to be sitting across the table from Sampson in the break room remarked that she found the KKK offensive. On both occasions, Sampson tried to explain what the book was really about. Both times, the other individual refused to listen.
A few weeks later, Sampson was notified by Marguerite Watkins of the school’s Affirmative Action Office (AAO) that a co-worker had filed a racial harassment complaint against him for reading the book in the break room. Once again, he attempted to explain the book’s content, but Watkins too had no interest in hearing it.
Apart from the significant threat posed by “an over-aggressive application of employment discrimination laws poses for First Amendment rights in the public employment context”, in the words of Concurring Opinions blogger Paul Secunda put it, what is deeply disturbing to me as a dispute resolution professional is the utter failure of anyone to listen to Sampson. Had anyone bothered to do so, any concerns about the subject matter of the book would have been instantly allayed.
A little listening would have meant a very different outcome for everyone involved — including Sampson. Consider how many misunderstandings, the vast majority below the radar and unreported, arise out of the failure to communicate — and how many complaints, lawsuits, and conflicts might be avoided if people assumed less and listened more.
(Hat tip to Concurring Opinions.)