Think We Live in a Colorblind Era? Welcome to Wet Seal

When pundits wax rhapsodic about the “colorblind” era we live in–or fulminate against affirmative action policies as interfering with that “post-racial” state–some of us think of cases like Wet Seal.

Wet Seal logoThe Equal Employment Opportunity Commission just determined that Wet Seal, a national women’s clothing chain, illegally discriminates against African-Americans (New York Times, 12/4/12). Corporate managers, the EEOC found, “have openly stated they wanted employees who had the ‘Armani look, were white, had blue eyes, thin and blond in order to be profitable.'” The three-year investigation was spurred by former store manager Nicole Cogdell, who was terminated along with other black employees after a senior vice president inspected stores in her area, then sent an e-mail reading, “African-Americans dominate–huge issue.” 

Cogdell worked hard; her King of Prussia, Pa. store was successful, ranking 8th out of 500 Wet Seal stores.  She and others lost their jobs because they’re black, period.

I was struck, if not really surprised, by the dailies’ decision to run this as a “Business” story. I was struck again by the L.A. Times lede (12/4/12), which called the discrimination finding

just the latest problem plaguing the struggling Foothill Ranch company, which in the space of five months has fired its chief executive, overseen a board overhaul and revamped its strategy to bolster flagging sales.

If it’s clear that Wet Seal is not the one being “plagued” here, it seems equally obvious to some of us that the heart of the story lies in the fact that high-level corporate managers are so very comfortable saying such things, writing them down, denying peoples’ livelihoods based on them. Surely this suggests a problem more pervasive than one executive at one retailer.

But if journalists acknowledged the depth and scope of the problem, it’d be impossible to write ingenuously of the company’s provision of “an ethics hotline, which workers can use to report incidents that violate the retailer’s anti-discrimination policy,” as if that were an adequate response, or to take company president Kenneth Siepel’s comments that employees are now asked “to think carefully about the meaning and importance of every sentence” as evidence of change, and move on.

Certainly it would be harder to entertain talk of U.S. racism as a thing of the past.

About Janine Jackson

Program Director and Co-producer of CounterSpin
Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra! and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC's Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW’s Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.