Thousands of stories detailing allegations of racial and religious discrimination have poured into the New York City Commission on Human Rights for years, but the commission's chair, Carmelyn P. Malalis, told BuzzFeed News the rate of complaints has increased — particularly since last year's election season.
Malalis gave some examples of the complaints they've heard since the election: A man walked into a 7-Eleven in New York City's borough of the Bronx last December and allegedly told an employee, "You fucking immigrant piece of shit. You Muslim. Go back to your country. This is why Donald Trump is president.” A few months later, a woman reportedly announced on a bus in Queens that she "hated Asians" and used her umbrella to whack a woman in the head. Also in March, a shopper inside a Manhattan store said she was speaking Spanish when a staffer told her, "Speak English; this is America," — and then kicked her out.
Now, she said, the city is trying to step up to counter the toxic climate.
"It is important that we are messaging to people that regardless of what happens at the federal level, the city of New York will stand up for you," she said in an interview.
On Tuesday, the commission, which enforces civil rights policies in the city, is launching a $468,000 ad campaign featuring 2,260 placards on subways, with more ads in newspapers and other places that catch your eye.
The ads feature various people — a Muslim woman, a black man, a Latino man, and more — and lay out the rights of minorities under the NYC Human Rights Law. They encourage victims to report incidents to the city, which investigates the claims and penalizes violators.
In one of the ads, a man says, "I should have the right to speak to my kids in Spanish without having someone tell me to speak English."
"People feel more empowered to be more explicit in their discrimination," Malalis said, adding that the commission has conducted focus groups and done interviews with scores involved in the incidents. "The last election cycle validated their hate or anger toward certain groups."
Last year, the number of people making discrimination complaints in New York City was up 60% over the previous year, according to commission, which says complaints are up another 30% so far this year. On average, more than two out of five complaints involve a person's race, religion, national origin, or immigration status.
"For this campaign," Malalis said, "we were thinking broadly of xenophobia. So much of the rhetoric in the last election cycle, and what continues, is what I would consider to be anti-immigrant — really hateful against people because of where they come from and the languages they speak."
Another ad features an Asian woman who says she should not be told to "go back to my country."
President Trump has taken several steps and made accusations seen as hostile to immigrants and religious minorities, from an attempted travel ban on majority Muslim countries and saying during the campaign that "Islam hates us" and characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists.
Meanwhile, Trump's Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is the federal government's top dog enforcing federal nondiscrimination laws, but civil rights groups have given him weak ratings for his record in the US Senate.
"I don't think they are standing up for the diversity of our citizens," Malalis said of the Trump administration. "I don't think they are taking a firm stand to protect people against discrimination and harassment, or to speak up for the most vulnerable in our community...a lot of people are worried that government doesn't have their back and is taking away rights or targeting them."
However, she noted, the election is not the only reason complaints may have increased. The city ramped up its civil-rights outreach in the past two years and has encouraged more people to come forward. One campaign announced transgender people have the right to use restrooms that match their gender identity, and another said that job applicants cannot be asked about their criminal history.
One of the new ads will feature a black woman who says she should be able to rent an apartment without discrimination.
That message speaks to incidents like one in 2015, when a real estate broker told a black woman that an apartment in New York City was unavailable. The broker suggested she look for a home in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, according to the commission. But when the woman's friend — a white man — tried to rent the same apartment the next day, the broker said there was vacancy. The commission settled the case and made the broker attend a training and pay $5,700.
Malalis reflected on the case: "That feels like progress to me."