Tesla says he doesn’t have a race problem. Hundreds of worker complaints say otherwise

After two tumultuous years, things at Tesla’s Fremont assembly plant were just starting to get back to normal in 2022. Company co-founder and CEO Elon Musk was no longer under fire. critics for trying to restart factory operations during a nationwide shutdown, the government was a little more relaxed about getting workers back to the workplace and COVID vaccines were more or less free available to workers.

The Fremont plant is as important to Tesla as it is to California – it’s one of the last bastions of what was once California’s thriving automotive hub. Rising costs have pushed automakers to build factories in Mexico, leaving US manufacturing on the back burner. But Tesla has (more or less) stood firm on its commitment to California, its birthplace.

However, there were problems in paradise again in February, when California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, now known as the Department of Civil Rights, filed a lawsuit against Tesla. The agency said it had collected “hundreds of complaints” dating back to 2012 and also had evidence of segregation against black workers.

Tesla released a statement alleging that the agency’s claims were baseless and that it never found any misconduct against the company. The automaker claimed the agency did not give it time to respond to accusations of racism.

“A narrative told by the DFEH and a handful of corporate complainants to generate publicity is not factual evidence,” the automaker said in its statement in February.

Unsurprisingly, Tesla took its dissent from the lawsuit one step further, when it filed a motion with the California Office of Administrative Law in June to stay the lawsuit to settle the claims out of court. Tesla’s motion was denied Aug. 8, and a judge issued an interim ruling Wednesday to deny Tesla’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. This means that Tesla will have to take the case to court. The company could face billions in damages if the charges turn out to be true.

While Tesla continues to remain infuriated by the serious hate crime and harassment charges, this isn’t exactly the first time the company has come under public scrutiny for allegations of racial misconduct by of its employees. A search for all tweets mentioning “tesla” and “racism” from January 2021 to August yielded thousands of results, with more than 1,300 tweets including both terms in October 2021 alone. While all of the tweets may not be about racism at Tesla, the spike coincides with the outcome of a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by Owen Diaz, an elevator operator who worked as a contract employee at Tesla in 2015 and 2016.

In the lawsuit, Diaz alleged co-workers subjected him to harassment and racial bias, including calling him racial slurs and drawing swastikas. A jury awarded him $137 million in October in punitive and compensatory damages, but that amount was lowered to $15 million by a U.S. District Judge in San Francisco in April. Diaz has since dismissed the reduced amount and is awaiting another trial.

Since the lawsuits against Diaz and the state, more black employees have accused Tesla of discriminatory practices. Black workers who previously worked at the Fremont plant told the Los Angeles Times in March that “Tesla segregated black workers into separate areas, gave them the toughest jobs, and consistently denied them promotions.” The former employees further alleged that some co-workers repeatedly used racial slurs against them.

As for the CEO of Tesla and self-proclaimed “Technoking” Musk, accusations of insensitivity to the issues faced by minority workers abound. In 2017, the Tesla co-founder wrote an email to employees in which some critics suggested the CEO wanted workers to forgive racist abuse by co-workers. In 2020, Musk came under heavy criticism after announcing Juneteenth as a holiday for Tesla employees, but only if they used paid time off. He was also called out the same year for mocking transgender inclusion, sadly tweeting that “pronouns suck”.

With this behavior emanating from the top, repeated allegations of racism and discrimination in other, less public parts of the business — like the Fremont plant — seem less surprising.

Tesla has been repeatedly called out for his apathy toward minority factory workers, but he has repeatedly denied all charges and said he has responded to and investigated all complaints. Yet the same types of complaints against the company keep coming up. According to the Civil Rights Department’s lawsuit, black workers “regularly heard” Tesla supervisors at the Fremont factory use racial slurs and some workers even faced racist graffiti. These complaints echo similar claims made by Diaz in his case and other former employees in other lawsuits.

In May and June of this year, Tesla fired the company’s president of the LGBTQIA+ community and a leader of the automaker’s diversity and inclusion activities. Layoffs followed Musk’s claim that the “awake mind virus” will destroy civilization.

Musk’s comment appears to follow his general lack of interest in diversity in the workplace. A search of the founder’s tweets, found no mention of the word “diversity” since Musk, an active Twitter user, joined the platform nearly 13 years ago. A similar search of Tesla’s Twitter account revealed that the company also had never tweeted on the subject.

Tesla has made clear its unease with the state charges and has even threatened in the past to leave California if things go south as the “last remaining automaker in California.” But whether Tesla is comfortable or not, this sole representative of the Golden State automakers has a problem with diversity. Tesla released its first diversity report of 2020, which revealed that about 10% of its American workforce was black, 21% was Asian American and 22% was Latino, making it a “majority minority” as a whole. However, 83% of employees in leadership positions at Tesla are male and 59% of executives are white. Black employees make up just 4% of the company’s leadership.

At a time when Tesla should be focused on bolstering its black workforce — particularly within its leadership — the company is instead busy finding arguments to defend the status quo. Tesla’s claim to diversity only seems to come out when there’s a court case.

Instead of fighting fires everywhere, maybe it’s time for the company to admit it has a racism problem. Home ownership will make life easier for current workers, install more guardrails to protect employees of various races, and reduce the possibility of further lawsuits. But so far, Tesla seems more ready to fight than to acknowledge.

Ankita Mukhopadhyay is a full-time media product manager and part-time freelance journalist based in South San Francisco.

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