#Essence Magazine Hires White Fashion Director #Employment Discrimination #Employment Law #Fashion Law

Angela Burt Murray, Essence Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief recently hired a white fashion director, Elliana Placas, to help run its over thirty (30) year old lifestyle publication; targeted primarily at African-American women.

Murray’s decision has caused so much consternation and heavy criticism from Essence readers and members of the black community. Before I get into the legal issues raised in this situation, let’s address the glaring “race” issue.

Essence began in the 1970s when it was rare to find blacks in the pages of any mainstream fashion/lifestyle magazine. This point should definitely not be diminished. As an African and African-American woman, I can tell you it can be pretty disheartening, going through life, career et al. and not seeing strong images of persons that look like you to reinforce that YOU can be successful.

American born, raised in Nigeria, West Africa, what greeted me when I returned to the States was stereotypical images of people that looked and sounded like me that were naked, hungry, starved etc. It is indeed what served as the impetus to establish Ladybrille Magazine, a publication on par with Essence.

Nevertheless, I fail to see why Murray should have made a different choice if, indeed, in her professional experience and judgment, Ms. Placas was the woman for the job. Yes, there are many qualified black professionals who would have made excellent fashion director(s) at Essence. But, at the end of the day, Essence chose Placas.

Further, there is an underlying hypocrisy that needs to be called out. Andre Leon Talley is Fashion Director for VOGUE America, a publication which primarily targets white women. Yet, whites have not had an outcry about his role. What do we make of it? I know I am bound to have dissenting opinions that say the two should not be compared. Nevertheless, the question remains whether Essence should have rejected Placas a seemingly qualified white candidate because its readership is predominantly black ? If your answer is yes, on what grounds?

Thinking about the Essence uproar, I couldn’t help but think about Arise Magazine. Arise, which began in 2009, is owned by Nigerian media mogul Nduka Obaigbena. It purports to tell the world stories of Africa’s fashion and entertainment celebrities through its glossy pages. There is no doubt, in my mind, that there are extremely talented and qualified Nigerians &/Africans who, as Editor-in-Chief, would do a brilliant job at Arise Magazine. Nevertheless, who did Arise choose for that role? Helen Jennings, a British white woman. Is this a slap in the face to Africans? In my view, “no.” If Jennings is the most qualified person for the position, why not?

Now, let’s get into what the law says about employers and race discrimination, with emphasis on the fashion industry.

What Law Governs Discrimination in the Workplace?
Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What Does it Do?
It says an employer cannot discriminate based on race, color, religion, gender and national origin.
In the above case, what is the probability that if Placas was rejected, she would sue based on racial discrimination? Minimal, at best. But, we do see such suits, and in most cases justifiably so, where a black qualified candidate applies for a  job in a predominantly white institution, firm, company etc. and is rejected.

What Other Forms of Discrimination Does the Act Prohibit?

  • Age
  • Disability (American with Disabilities Act)
  • Pregnancy
  • Citizenship
  • Pay
  • Union Membership

What about Sexual Orientation?
Federal law is silent on this. However, states have provided their own anti-discrimination laws that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. DC, California, New York, and Vermont are examples.

Does it Apply to my Business?
If you have more than 15 employees, yes it does. Clearly in Essence’s situation, the act applies.

Specific to the Fashion Industry Where Do Violations Occur Most, Creating Litigation (Fight)?
Fashion is notorious for violating employment laws. Below are two common areas. As a caveat, if you are a fashion business owner, you need to tune into these issues and “chill out” i.e. fix the problem before you get slapped with a suit, or worse face both civil suit and criminal charges.

  1. Racial Discrimination: L’Oreal thought women were “worth it” only if  they were white women. A French Court said, “No. I don’t think so.” I know. Surprise, surprise, right? If you ask me, it is only a matter of time before modeling agencies and the clients they serve (designers) also get sued for this continuous discriminatory practice based on race.
  2. Sexual Harassment. This is a BIG issue and when “stuff hits the fan,” it’s bad.  An illustration of this point and a really tragic case is that of designer Jon Anand. Anand was charged with 59 criminal counts that  included “forcible rape, sexual penetration by a foreign object, sexual exploitation of a child, sexual battery, and forcible oral copulation.” He was convicted and sentenced to 59years in prison. His sensational story and trial will leave you on the edge of your seat. Read it here.  NOTE: Title VII mentioned above is silent on sexual harassment. This area is governed by case law that has interpreted the statute to say sexual harassment is illegal. See  Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, a seminal case from the US Supreme Court.

Other areas of employment law come into play in the fashion industry but that’s for another day. It’d be interesting to read your thoughts.

Be sure to read Murray’s defense on why she hired Placas on theGrio.com.