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.
The 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.