What is the difference between national origin discrimination and race discrimination?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on both national origin and race. Is there any real difference between those two protected classes?

While, in most cases, the same evidence can be used to prove race discrimination and national origin discrimination, discrimination based on national origin is discrimination based on where an employee was born or where his ancestors were born. Practically, race discrimination and national origin discrimination cases are nearly identical.

Just as an employer is forbidden from preferring an employee because of his race, an employer is forbidden from preferring employees because of their ancestry or heritage. For example, an employer cannot refuse to hire applicants from Mexico and only hire those from the United States.

Affiliation

One of the most obvious examples of national origin discrimination is discriminated based on an employee’s affiliation with a particular ethnic group. For example, an employer cannot harass an employee because she is of Jewish descent. Similarly, an employer cannot pay an employee less because he is Middle Eastern.

Affiliation to an ethnic group also includes subgroups and is not necessarily limited to recognized countries. For example, an employer cannot prefer a Turkish employee over an Egyptian employee even though it may consider both Middle Eastern—that is discrimination based on national origin. Further, an employer cannot discriminate against a Palestinian employee even though Palestine is not recognized as a sovereign nation—it is still discrimination based on the employee’s affiliation to an ethnic group.

Likewise, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee because of physical or cultural traits and clothing associated with a particular ethnic group or country. For example, harassing an employee because he wears a turban and has an accent.

Perception

What matters in a national origin discrimination case is how the employer perceives an employee’s ethnicity, not how that employee identifies. In other words, an employer cannot discriminate against an employee whom he perceives to belong to a certain ethnic group or heritage. For example, an employer perceives a Hispanic employee to be Middle Eastern and fires him because of the perceived Middle Eastern affiliation. It does not matter that the employee is not actually Middle Eastern—the employer has still discriminated based on national origin.

Association

Title VII also prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s relationships and association with members of national origin groups. An employer cannot discriminate against an employee because of who he associates with or who his spouse is. For example, an employer cannot fire an employee because her spouse is Middle Eastern. Similarly, an employer cannot pay an employee less because of his close relationship with a Hispanic community regardless of the employee’s own national origin.