The “Decentering Whiteness” complaint

Posted July 17, 2023


Certain media have been amplifying the recently-filed case Lee v. Foothill-De Anza Community College District et al., in which a Black sociologist faculty member alleges she was illegally fired from a Community College for her views in favor of “decentering whiteness.” Read the Complaint here.

Who is the plaintiff? Dr. Tabia Lee is an educational sociologist and a teacher. She received a Bachelor of Arts in sociology from the University of California, Davis, a Masters in Education, and a Doctor of Education from the University of California, Irvine and California State University, Los Angeles. Prior to the events leading to this lawsuit, Dr. Lee worked as a National Board Certified Teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Who are the defendants? Dr. Lee brought suit against the Community College that employed her, the affiliated school district, as well as individual trustees and administrators.

What laws were allegedly broken? According to the Complaint, the defendants violated Dr. Lee’s free speech rights under the U.S. and California constitutions, as well as federal and state antidiscrimination laws.

Why is this case showing up in my news feed? At a time when ideological opponents of racial equity movements are seeking to leverage the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision against workplace diversity, this case offers a compelling fact pattern. The plaintiff is a Black woman who alleges that she suffered adverse treatment because she opposed discrimination against white people. The complaint also includes rhetorical wedging of one marginalized group against another, emphasizing alleged inappropriate treatment of minority groups that include white individuals, such as the LGBTQIA+ and Jewish communities,

What else do I need to know about the case? This case is of less legal relevance outside the higher education context, particularly for private employers.

Any relevant takeaways? This case has just been filed and the defendant likely disputes the complaint’s characterizations. Whether or not the allegations are true, and whether or not they establish a legal violation, is for the court to decide.

Generally speaking, though, employers may take note to avoid the following (without implying that any of the below did or did not take place in this particular case):

  • Avoid assuming that someone harbors a particular viewpoint based solely on their race, gender, or other legally-protected status.
  • Never imply that someone is “not really [of a particular identity]” because of their viewpoint.
  • Initatives that appear tokenizing often inspire opposition.
  • Initiatives that appear to be doing something different from the words they’re using often inspire opposition (e.g., using “diversity / inclusion” and “anti-racism” interchangeably)

Additional Resources

The Workforce Mobility Act of 2023
Introduction The landscape of employment law is ever-evolving. Some legislative proposals threaten to erode workplace equity, but others reflect a broader societal ...
Global diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) challenges
Diversity equity and inclusion (DEI) poses unique legal and practical challenges for employers with multicountry operations. To develop an effective global diversity ...
The corporate DEI cutbacks narrative
Verse Legal's Bonnie Levine recently spoke to NPR about the confusing legal landscape surrounding corporate DEI initiatives, which are reportedly facing "cutbacks." ...