Pitt Law Professor Pat Chew examines tough questions dealing with values, behaviors, and equity across cultures, gender, and race. Read full story here.
Josephine Chavez, a Latino worker in an optometrist’s office, noticed a disturbing practice. Her coworkers were using a different set of pens when admitting Black clients: Red ink was used for Blacks, and blue or black ink was used for everyone else. Chavez surmised that this practice resulted in unequal treatment based on race, revealing an office climate conducive to racial discrimination. She also believed that she personally was experiencing race-based harassment in the workplace.
Chavez filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, complaining that her employer, Texas State Optical of Beaumont, Texas, had violated federal antidiscrimination laws by creating a segregated and intimidating racist environment. The company’s owners—brothers S.J. and N. Jay Rogers—were named as responsible.
The complaint became Rogers vs. EEOC, a landmark judicial case that opened the way for courts to weigh discriminatory harassment, the idea that workplace injustice can occur not only in employers’ formal decisions—such as hiring, firing, and promotions—but also in coworkers’ everyday behaviors, like treating colleagues differently based on race or using different colored pens to “code” race.
When the case originated, Pat Chew was living with her parents about 750 miles west of Beaumont in El Paso, a dusty city cradled by the banks of the Rio Grande. The Chavez workplace was just across the state, but for Chew—then a busy student—it may as well have been a universe away. She was not yet attuned to the painful realities created by difference. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she was simply trying to fit in.
In the late 1960s, Chew attended Ysleta High School, which sat next to the Tigua Indian Reservation. To her, El Paso was a pastiche of cultures and languages, a safe place where she glided comfortably amid friendships with Chinese Americans, Anglos, and Mexican Americans as easily as she slipped into her modern dance leotards or cheerleading outfit. Here, she was largely removed from the nation’s roiling news about the Vietnam War and campus protests happening in the world beyond the Lower Valley.
Chew was an astute student, keenly aware of her parents’ goal to send all six of their children to good colleges. When she wasn’t studying, the youngest Chew worked in the family business, The Chew Din Grocery #2, owned by her parents. The grocery store, only two blocks from the U.S.-Mexican border, was sown from the seeds of a fruit-peddling business begun by her grandfather in El Paso after his own long and winding journey to America. Painted on the store’s large windows were the specials of the day: pollo or manteca. One-hundred-pound bags of pinto beans sat nearby. In this welcoming space, she spoke Spanish, cashed customers’ weekly paychecks, and chuckled with the regulars, such as “Gimme Three,” a toothless Latino man who always wanted three packs of gum.
By 1969, Chew was getting ready to leave her hometown. It was the same year that the Chavez court case was filed across the state. She was going to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., to study psychology and communication. In that era, student politics at Stanford leaned, often radically, to the Left. On campus, there were peace vigils, student sit-ins, Black Panthers rallies, and political slogans of all sorts written on banners along the old and stately walls of Roble Hall, where Chew lived as an undergraduate. She didn’t know where she fit into all this drama on the West Coast. She wasn’t in El Paso anymore.
Instead, she focused on her studies, which prompted her to explore some of the larger social and political questions swirling around her. She began to notice issues of identity and difference and how they unfurled in the larger world. These issues percolated inside her—even after her Stanford graduation, a move to Austin, jobs as a grade-school teacher and secretary, and a counseling-center stint at the University of Texas, where she earned a master’s degree in educational psychology.
Along the way, she learned that racial and gender differences can and do influence how people are treated. She didn’t–she couldn’t–ignore being Asian and female in a society where people reacted, sometimes negatively, to differences and where women were still second-class citizens. She decided to attend law school at the University of Texas, where her entry into cross-cultural law proved to be an awakening around those long-held percolating issues.
The woman who was once uncomfortable with sociopolitical confrontation began to examine tough questions dealing with values, behaviors, and equity across cultures, gender, and race: Do opportunities vary for different people and in different places? If there are victims in society, why does victimization happen to some but not to others? What role does the law play in creating and solving disparities?
Through her law studies and practice, Chew saw that being different has consequences. The facts are clear, she says. Applicants with African American-sounding names get fewer job interviews than Whites with identical qualifications. Female lawyers receive lower salaries, even when they have the same seniority as their male colleagues. Even language reveals difference, she notes: Males come to mind in the words “businessman” or “mankind” or “he,” even when the intention is to refer to both women and men.
In 1985—after working in Chicago for a few years in corporate and international law at Baker & McKenzie, then the world’s largest legal firm—Chew was drawn back into the classroom, this time as a professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Here, her research and teaching began to reflect her diverse education and experiences.
Her primary subjects include employment law, dispute resolution processes, corporate law, culture and conflict, and interdisciplinary seminars on a range of topics such as Subtle Sexism/Subtle Racism in the Workplace, Conflict in a Multicultural America, and Gender and Race Dynamics in Law Schools and Law Firms. Her articles have appeared in many journals, and she has authored or edited a number of books. She also was named one of Pitt’s first Law School Distinguished Faculty Scholars for work she conducted in 2001-04, and she recently received that honor again. She’ll soon be joining the governing board of the Association of American Law Schools, a first for Pitt’s School of Law.
Several years ago, Chew’s focus turned to workplace harassment. She has at least 7,000 reasons to pursue this work. According to USA Today, an estimated 7,000 complaints for race-based workplace harassment were filed with the EEOC in a single year. With such numbers, Chew felt that it was important to examine the outcomes of such cases. So, nearly 40 years after the Rogers vs. EEOC case was first filed in Beaumont, Texas, Chew revisited Josephine Chavez’s story about racial harassment in the workplace. Ultimately the courts found in favor of Chavez’s claims, affirming the reality of racial harassment in the workplace for the first time.
Chew tackled issues of workplace harassment broadly, studying the nuances of judicial decision making in harassment cases, teaching about subtle bias in the workplace, and researching how best to resolve employment disputes in business. She wrapped herself in the quiet, painstaking preparation of lawyerly and empirical scholarship. Her research was exhaustive, and her writing was precise and sometimes personal, sprinkled with poetry, a lyrical manna to nourish her ideas. Not surprising for a scholar who once thought of becoming a journalist and who, in 2005, earned a Pitt Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in recognition of her interdisciplinary approach—using legal doctrine, social science, and cultural context—to teach law.
One study in particular closely examined the courts’ response to racial harassment. Chew and her collaborator, Robert Kelley, a professor and researcher from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, studied cases going back 20 years. They wanted to know what happened to race-based harassment claims in court, especially when plaintiffs of color encountered a judicial system that is overwhelmingly White. Chew saw this study as a classic example of cultures in conflict.
A stream of published articles flowed from this research, including “The Myth of the Color-Blind Judge: An Empirical Analysis of Racial Harassment Cases.” The study, published in 2009 in the Washington University Law Review, found a stark difference between the rulings of Black judges and their White counterparts. Black plaintiffs in workplace racial discrimination complaints lost their cases 79 percent of the time if the judges were White and only 54 percent of the time if the judges were Black.
Chew’s findings and interpretations looked at many characteristics of the judges. Age, education, and gender didn’t appear to make a difference. The judge’s political affiliation did—but that difference was independent of the judge’s race. These findings challenge a notion that many citizens accept as truth: judges are totally objective, rational, and blind to factors like race.
What Chew’s study revealed is that race matters; it influences the outcome of judicial cases. “White judges as a group are more likely than their African American counterparts to rule in favor of employers. African American judges as a group are more likely to believe that employees have credible grievances of racial harassment,” says Chew.
She posits that a judge’s background makes a difference, and the rulings are not just mechanical. Is there a human factor, an implicit bias? Her study doesn’t suggest that judges are ill-intentioned. Rather, they are all socialized differently. This socialization influences court decisions, and those decisions reverberate in America’s workspaces.
The study sparked widespread media attention. Chew was invited to speak before judges’ groups all over the country. Professional associations called, eager to know more about the myth of color-blind judges.
Her journey—begun long ago in a Texas border town—has taught her that people indeed respond to race, gender, ethnicity, and all kinds of other human characteristics. And, although those responses are not necessarily mean-spirited or malevolent, they do exist—intentionally or not, consciously or not. In a society full of differences, Chew has learned that we all slip into circumstances—likely without thinking—that cause us to view some groups of people as more limited, less competent, and sometimes simply invisible. The conversation on fairness in the workplace is one of the interlocking interests and issues that connect Chew with the landmark Rogers vs. EEOC case, when a Latino worker complained about practices that made her uncomfortable on the job. Then, as now, the larger question is how, in a multicultural society, do we forge justice for all?
Pitt Law’s Pat Chew is still asking.