Race Discrimination Cases, Civil Rights Lawsuits Rise in Minn.

Updated: 10/03/2013 7:26 AM KSTP.com By: Stephen Tellier

The face of Minnesota is changing. As our state welcomes more and more people from different countries and cultures, a troubling trend is emerging.

Charges of racial discrimination filed with the state and federal civil rights cases are both on the rise.

"This was definitely targeting. It was very hateful," said Ken Kelton, who said his dreadlocks are part of his identity.

But in July, his employer, a Salvation Army in Burnsville, instituted a new policy.

"They didn't want anyone with cornrows, afros, dreadlocks or mohawks working for them anymore," Kelton said.

He said his manager had tears in her eyes when she fired him.

"She was like, 'Well, you can just quit.' And I told her, 'You hired me with these dreadlocks, so you're going to fire me with them,'" Kelton said.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights said "numerous" black employees were fired at that same store as a result of that policy.

"The policy implemented by the employer had a disproportionate impact on African-Americans," said Kevin Lindsey, the MDHR commissioner.

The case is part of a pattern.

There were 169 racial discrimination charges filed with the state during the first six months of this year and 76 based on national origin. Both numbers are the highest on record. Last year, 481 federal civil rights lawsuits were filed in Minnesota -- 40 percent higher than the five-year average.

Lindsey said companies are trying to cope with a changing workforce but are using ill-conceived policies.

"If we can see those policies, explain, educate people, hopefully we can get those policies changed," Lindsey said.

The Salvation Army settled with the state. It did not admit to discrimination but agreed to provide additional training for managers, rehire the fired workers, and pay lost wages.

"We verified that there were no other concerns with their performance, the employer was happy to bring the people back in, a new policy got implemented, and we felt it was a win-win for everybody," Lindsey said.

Kelton got his job back. But the pain lingers.

"It's just hurtful that you can judge someone off of their skin color or how they look or how their hair grows," Kelton said.

The Salvation Army provided the following statement: 

"From its inception, The Salvation Army has endeavored to meet the spiritual and social needs of all people. Our programs and services are developed in recognition of the principle that all persons are created equal. Furthermore, The Salvation Army opposes discrimination in its operations, and serves all people, based on need, without discrimination. When, and if an isolated practice were to be discovered which has the potential to be discriminatory, The Salvation Army takes immediate steps to correct that practice. The Salvation Army is one of the largest providers of social service in Minnesota and will continue to provide services daily to thousands who are in need of food, shelter, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, disaster relief, emergency assistance and hope."