By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Fishing and hunting gear supplier Bass Pro Shops knowingly and systematically discriminated against Hispanic and black applicants in hiring, and some of its managers used racial slurs, a U.S. government agency charged.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Wednesday filed a rare federal lawsuit against Missouri-based Bass Pro Shops in Houston federal court.
The company, which operates a popular chain of monster stores selling all kinds of outdoor equipment, told Reuters on Thursday that the complaints stem from the stereotype that people who like outdoor sports are racist rednecks.
"This investigation and the EEOC's conduct demonstrate a troubling tendency by the EEOC to stereotype those who love outdoor sports and support conservation as people who unlawfully discriminate or oppose equal opportunity for all," Rowland said.
He said that on several occasions, government investigators remarked that Bass Pro Shops' sponsorship of a NASCAR race team indicated "the company is more likely to discriminate against minorities."
According to court documents, one manager of a Houston area store told his human resource manager that "it's getting a little dark in here, you need to hire some white people."
The lawsuit alleges similar conduct at Bass Pro Shop outlets in Alabama, Louisiana, Indiana, and Texas.
The lawsuit says a manager of a Bass Pro Shop in Indiana was seen discarding employment applications, saying the name on one application was a "n------ name," and telling a co-worker that "n-----s steal and don't make good employees."
The lawsuit also claims Bass Pro refused to hire Hispanic workers, quoting one Indiana manager as saying that 'Hispanics should be shot at the border by the Border Patrol.'" It said a Houston-area manager used derogatory terms such as "wetback" and "Pedro" when referring to Hispanic applicants.
Rowland said the government did not conduct a fair investigation.
"The company has cooperated with the EEOC throughout the investigation, providing extensive documentation and numerous witnesses," he said.
He said violations "are inevitable in any large organization with thousands of employees" but said those violations are "promptly and firmly addressed."
Lawsuits against companies alleging racial discrimination are rare, because companies usually reach out of court settlements on the complaints.
But Rowland said the agency "made unrealistic demands," and said "fundamental fairness and good faith should require that the EEOC reveal the evidence on which its claims are based before filing a lawsuit that will be long, expensive, and disruptive."
The suit seeks an order prohibiting Bass Pro Shops from participating in the alleged racially-biased hiring, as well as back pay and further damages for pain and suffering to applicants who were victims of bias.
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Greg McCune)