The Slatest

Black Supervisors at Ohio GM Plant Allege They Were Threatened With Nooses, Swastikas, and Slurs

A blue sign with the GM logo.
Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images

Two black men who worked at General Motors until they left their jobs out of fear for their safety have filed a lawsuit accusing the company of allowing violent levels of racism in an Ohio plant, according to a CNN report Thursday.

Marcus Boyd and Derrick Brooks experienced more than a year of constant, overt racial harassment, according to a lawsuit filed by nine black GM employees who allege the company permitted an “underlying atmosphere of violent racial hate and bullying” at the Toledo Powertrain plant. Some of the allegations from the lawsuit, as described by CNN and in previous reporting by the Detroit Free Press:

• Graffiti and signs labeled the bathrooms as for “whites only.”
• Subordinates called the black supervisors “boy,” “monkey,” and the N-word.
• White employees called black people in the plant “Dan,” which, the men later discovered, stood for “dumb-ass n—–.”
• A white woman seen being amiable with a black supervisor found the words “n—– lover” scrawled on her pizza box.
• Subordinates refused to follow black supervisors’ directions.
• Workers told black employees to “go back to Africa.”
• Workers wore Nazi symbols underneath their coveralls.
• Swastikas were painted and scratched onto restroom stalls, along with stick figures with nooses around their necks.
• Black employees found graffiti saying “hate blacks” and “blacks shouldn’t be here” on bathroom walls.
• White subordinates glared openly at black supervisors.
• Black supervisors were not given the same resources as their white colleagues, such as training.

According to Brooks, when he reported specific instances of harassment to upper management, he was told to deal with the problems himself. Meanwhile, the abuse was escalating to the point where Brooks and Boyd feared for their lives. At one point, Brooks said he found gun magazines placed on his desk in an apparent threat. Someone once warned employees that one employee’s “daddy was in the Ku Klux Klan.” A handwritten message was found warning, “You only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang” (a quotation from the Quentin Tarantino film The Hateful Eight.)

Even as the threats grew violent, upper management appeared not to take the issues seriously, the lawsuit alleges. At one point, a white employee told Boyd, “Back in the day, you would have been buried with a shovel.” The employee, who admitted to a union official at a disciplinary hearing to making the threat, was let off without any punishment. Boyd was pulled aside and told to let the matter go in order to get along with the other employees, he says.

In another instance, a subordinate became frustrated over a human resources issue, yelled, and raised a metal clutch as if to strike Boyd. Boyd said in the suit he believes a strike from the object could have been fatal. The employee lost one day’s salary as punishment.

The racial tension came to a head when nooses began appearing. According to the lawsuit, five nooses were found in areas where the two black supervisors worked, and each time a new one would appear, Boyd or Brooks would report the incident to GM. According to the black workers in the lawsuit, the first noose’s appearance led to meetings in the plant, but the meetings focused only on violence, not intimidation or racial discrimination.

In what may be the most damning sign of the plant’s culture, one former union president reported to investigators later that one white supervisor complained people were making “too big of a deal” about the nooses and that “there was never a black person who was lynched that didn’t deserve it.”

After Boyd heard of a rumor that eight white employees were planning to follow him out of the plant one day and attack him, he left his job, and Brooks also quit soon after.

Employees eventually filed complaints with police and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which found last March after a nine-month investigation that GM had allowed a hostile and racist environment.

GM has disagreed with the portrayal of their own reaction to the allegations and told CNN in a statement that it closed the plant for a day after the first noose appeared to have training for the entire plant. “We treat any reported incident with sensitivity and urgency, and are committed to providing an environment that is safe, open and inclusive,” the statement said. “General Motors is taking this matter seriously and addressing it through the appropriate court process.” GM also replaced all ropes in the plant with yellow chains. According to CNN, no one has been fired over the nooses, but GM reports that several people at the plant have been fired during the process of examining harassment and discrimination in its plants.