Categorically Black, White, or Wrong: ‘Misperception Discrimination’ and the State of Title VII Protection
This Article exposes an inconspicuous, categorically wrong movement within antidiscrimination law. A band of federal courts have denied Title VII protection to individuals who allege “categorical discrimination”: invidious, differential treatment on the basis of race, religion, color, national origin, or sex. Per these courts, a plaintiff who self-identifies as Christian but is misperceived as Muslim cannot assert an actionable claim under Title VII if she suffers an adverse employment action as a result of this misperception and related animus. Though Title VII expressly prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, courts have held that such a plaintiff’s claim of “misperception discrimination” is beyond Title VII’s scope. Accordingly, Title VII protection is only extended to such a plaintiff if she is “actually” Muslim or brings forth allegations of invidious, differential treatment based upon her actual Christian identity. This Article argues that these judicially created prerequisites to Title VII protection are categorically wrong. They impose a new “actuality requirement” on Title VII plaintiffs in intentional discrimination cases that engenders unfathomable results. Plaintiffs who suffer from invidious, differential treatment animated by either their self-ascribed or misperceived protected status will be denied statutory protection against discrimination if they fail to prove their actual religious, gender, ethnic, racial, or color identity upon defendant-employers’ challenge. Though this Article primarily examines the imposition of an actuality requirement in mispercepion discrimination cases, this Article also demonstrates that courts have considered and imposed an actuality requirement in conventionally framed discrimination cases as well. Accordingly, this Article is the first to enumerate the development of, and myriad justifications for, the actuality requirement in cases of categorical discrimination. This Article argues that some courts’ imposition of an actuality requirement in misperception and conventionally framed discrimination cases denotes the birth of an unorthodox interpretation of Title VII’s reach and meaning nearly fifty years after its enactment — an interpretative methodology that this Article is first to describe as “anti-anticlassificationist.” This Article also highlights a few critical, negative implications of courts’ anti-anticlassificationist interpretation of antidiscrimination law. Namely, it examines the emergence of a minimalist “actuality defense” and resulting identity adjudication, which obfuscates the chief issue in intentional discrimination cases: whether the plaintiff suffered unlawful, invidious, differential treatment. Additionally, this Article illuminates that courts’ anti-anticlassificationist interpretation and attendant actuality requirement have in fact resuscitated age-old trials of racial determination. They have thereby produced an additional destructive consequence by reifying race as a stable, biological construct. Consequently, this Article proposes fresh, practical, and theoretical interventions to cease the continued anti-anticlassificationist interpretation of Title VII. In doing so, this Article excavates previously unexplored Title VII statutory provisions, longstanding EEOC directives, Fifth and Third Circuit precedent, and recent Supreme Court precedent. Properly read, these sources will show that a prerequisite showing of actuality in cases of categorical discrimination under Title VII is wrong. Thus, this Article affirms that all categorical discrimination plaintiffs — that is, all individuals who have allegedly suffered discriminatory treatment on the basis of their actual or mistaken religious, gender, ethnic, racial, or color identity — are entitled to vindicate their statutory rights to be free from unlawful discrimination.