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Arabs, Muslims Report Hundreds of Discrimination Claims Each Year. Here's one NJ Story

posted on: Mar 14, 2021



Essma Bengabsia was proud to be one of the first hijab-wearing women on the New York trading floor for BlackRock Inc., the world’s biggest asset manager.

Hired in 2018 as an analyst, the North Bergen resident was ready to make her mark on the financial world, after graduating from the prestigious NYU Stern School of Business.

“When I came into the company, I was the only person who looked the way I looked on the trading floor,” Bengabsia, 23, said in a recent interview. “I recognized I was very much charting new territory and trailblazing for women who look like me.”

But Bengabsia said her workplace turned hostile, as she faced repeated instances of discrimination for being Muslim, Arab and female. She detailed allegations in a first-person essay, “#MeToo at BlackRock,” published on last month.

BlackRock, a Wall Street behemoth that manages $8.7 trillion in assets, said in a statement that it investigated Bengabsia’s claims but did not find she had been the subject of discrimination or harassment.

“BlackRock has acted to address employee misconduct before and will do so again wherever and whenever necessary to maintain an inclusive work environment,” a company spokesman said.

The company declined to discuss specifics of the allegations.

Claims of workplace discrimination, like those alleged by Bengabsia, are on the rise, say groups that advocate for Arab and Muslim Americans. Muslims and Arab Americans report hundreds of such cases each year, despite federal and state laws barring discrimination based on race, religion, national origin and gender.

The claims continue to mount in part because of a volatile political climate in which hatred against Muslims, Arabs and immigrants has been more freely expressed and has spilled into the workplace, advocates said.

“Since our inception, we’ve seen workplace discrimination claims right up there with immigration as one of our top issues,” said Abed Ayoub, legal director of the Washington, D.C.-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

The problem is more widespread than what’s reported to the ADC or to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces laws against workplace discrimination, Ayoub added.

‘Why don’t you just be American?’

An Arab American, Bengabsia was born in Brooklyn and raised in North Bergen. A graduate of Al-Ghazaly High School in Wayne, she was drawn to social justice issues at a young age, joining and leading charity and interfaith outreach efforts, she said.

As a community activist, she has rallied against Islamophobia and racism and was a main speaker at the Women’s March on New Jersey in 2018. In 2015, Bengabsia co-founded the Muslim Network, a coalition of organizations in New Jersey.

Her passion, she said, is socially responsible and impactful investing. BlackRock appealed to her because it presented itself as a company that valued inclusivity and diversity, she said.

Hired by the company after an internship, she said, she soon faced prejudiced comments and was questioned about whether she was truly an American.

In one instance, Bengabsia alleged that when she did not wear a Christmas sweater at a work party, a senior investor said, “Why don’t you just be American for once?” A supervisor mentioned the incident during her performance review as a reason she wasn’t considered a team player, she said.

In another instance, Bengabsia said, a managing director at the firm mocked how she said “Assalamu Alaikum,” a common Muslim greeting that means “peace be upon you,” on a phone call.

Bengabsia said she also faced harassment when an older colleague leered at her, bumped her chair and joked about whether he should touch her, while colleagues “egged him on.”

She filed a complaint with human resources and kept a spreadsheet with detailed information of what happened, including dates, times and names of witnesses, she said.

In response, one person was sent to counseling to learn “more sensitive communication,” and BlackRock’s human resources department said it would expand diversity training to her division, Bengabsia wrote in her essay.

A co-worker said in an interview that Bengabsia confided in her about what was happening in her division.

“She was very distraught and just having a very hard time,” said the co-worker, who did not want to be named because she is still employed at BlackRock. “We would meet and talk about it. She was constantly trying to decide if she should go to HR.

“All of these were discussions we had together. Everything in her story are things I remember her talking about,” the co-worker said.

Bengabsia said she decided to write the essay after a former employee, Mugi Nguyai, who is Black, contacted her and said he also experienced discrimination, she said.

Petition drive

“I’m a woman of my values, and if I see injustice continue and see the opportunity to take action, I will,” she said. Bengabsia said she now works as a senior associate focused on sustainable and impact investing at a financial firm in the Philadelphia area.

Bengabsia launched a petition demanding that BlackRock take action that has garnered more than 10,000 signatures online. She called for the company to hire an independent firm to investigate reports of harassment and discrimination and to establish an oversight committee to tackle racism.

Since her essay, she said, current and former BlackRock employees have reached out with similar experiences. Last month, she and Nguyai published a joint letter on warning CEO Larry Fink that the complaints were widespread.

“We urge you to take action to address the systemic discrimination that under-represented groups continue to face at your company,” they said.

In a March 2 memo to staff, BlackRock announced that it was changing how it handles harassment issues, according to a report by Bloomberg News. The company said it would create a separate team to make sure investigations into employee complaints “stay on task and timely.”

“We recognize the systemic challenges faced by many under-represented groups in their careers,” the BlackRock spokesman said in a statementto The Record and “That is why BlackRock continues to aggressively work to promote equitable and inclusive practices by its managers and has set transparent targets for increasing diversity within our workforce.”

Hundreds of annual claims

Although Muslims account for only 1% of the U.S. population, they filed nearly a quarter of religious discrimination claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2017, according to the latest data available.

That year, the agency documented 802 complaints alleging anti-Muslim discrimination at work. The year before, more than 1,000 were lodged. The number of claims alleging discrimination on the basis of Middle Eastern national origin was 462 in 2017.

This also includes claims from individuals who are perceived to be Muslim or Arab, such as Sikhs or South Asians.

A claim, or charge of discrimination, is a signed statement asserting that an employer or labor organization engaged in discrimination. It asks the EEOC to take remedial action.

The New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which has publicly supported Bengabsia, handled 14 inquiries about employment discrimination last year, said staff attorney Nina Rossi.

They included a complaint against a New Jersey-based information technology company that allegedly sent an email to recruiters asking them not to submit Muslim candidates for jobs. In another case, a woman was told by her new employer that she could not wear her hijab to work at a warehouse in Piscataway, Rossi said.

Selaedin Maksut, executive director of CAIR-NJ, said corporations may publicly state support and respect for a diverse workplace, but the work culture doesn’t always back that up.

“If you have a Muslim who is unapologetically Muslim and is not afraid of their identity, they will come into conflict with office culture, whether it’s going to the bar for happy hour or Christmas parties,” he said. “Maybe they’re not getting a promotion because they are not perceived as a team player because they don’t jibe with the culture.”

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee fields hundreds of calls every year about workplace discrimination, Ayoub said. He said cases rose in 2002, after the 9/11 terror attacks, and then shot up again around 2009. The pattern is also reflected in EEOC data.

Ayoub said a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric from the right-wing Tea Party movement and controversies over the proposed “Ground Zero mosque” stirred divisions around 2009. The problems were further fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment during the Trump administration, he said.

Many people choose not to take action against employers, leaving their jobs instead, Ayoub said. Discrimination isn’t always easy to prove or even clear-cut, he added. Sometimes it takes on more subtle forms, such as workers being denied pay raises or promotions.

“This has a serious impact on our economic well-being and goes beyond one individual,” he said. “It impacts the community as a whole.”

He urged people to be educated about their rights and to document anything that can back up complaints. If they have a conversation about discrimination, follow up with an email going over the details, he advised.

“These partisan beliefs [about Arabs and Muslims] are bleeding into the workforce, and I anticipate it will have a significant impact in the next year or two,” he said. “I don’t see a decrease. That’s why we put resources toward educating our community.”

Hannan Adely is a diversity reporter for To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.


Twitter: @adelyreporter