Articles Posted in Race Discrimination

Wet Seal has been charged in California federal court for discriminating in favor of blond-haired, blue-eyed employees, as reported by the Los Angeles Times this week.

The suit, Nicole Cogdell et al v. The Wet Seal Inc et al, was filed in the Northern District of California last week and alleges that the California-based retail chain had a company-wide policy of discriminating against African American managers.

The complaint was filed by three former managers of the chain on behalf of all similarly situated managers who had been discriminated against in hiring, firing or promotion because of their race. With 550 stores across the country, there are up to 250 managers employed by Wet Seal who may be covered by the complaint, exposing Wet Seal to perhaps tens of millions of dollars in liability.

Fortune 500 freight company Yellow Transportation Inc., now known as YRC Freight, has settled an $11 million race discrimination suit, as reported this week by the Chicago Sun-Times. This is the second such suit settled by the company in as many years, bringing the total payments by the company for race discrimination in its Chicago branches to $21 million. This suit against Yellow Transportation provides another example of the historical and enduring race discrimination within the trucking industry that is just now being addressed.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the suit in 2009 on behalf of 324 workers at the Chicago Ridge branch of the company who they allege faced years of discrimination and harassment because of their race. The EEOC’s complaint alleged that workers at the company’s Chicago Ridge office faced daily discrimination, with hangman’s nooses, racist graffiti and insults common. The complaint also alleged that the company assigned to racial minorities more difficult and time consuming work. The company also allegedly paid racial minorities less and disciplined them more severely than non-minorities for similar infractions.

Yellow Transportation Inc., with over 28,000 employees, is one of the most dominant companies in the trucking industry. As the EEOC in its press release on the settlement noted, the historical and pervasive discrimination in the trucking industry is just now coming into the public spotlight and being addressed. With over 3.2 million truck drivers in the United States, there is still a shortage of workers in the industry, as reported by the New York Times.

United Airlines pilots filed suit in the Northern District Court of California last week, alleging race discrimination in the promotion of pilots and supervisors into management positions, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.

The 24 plaintiffs— 22 captains and 2 operation supervisors—alleged that United Airlines, now owned by United Continental Holdings after its 2010 merger with Continental Airlines, undertook a pattern and practice of discrimination against minority pilots to keep them from positions in the highest level of management. The case, Johnson et. al. v. United Continental Holdings Inc., et. al., is currently being heard in San Francisco by U.S. District Court Judge Donna Ryu, and alleges violation by United of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 24 U.S.C. 1981, and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. The United Airlines pilots also put forward harassment and retaliation claims under both the federal and state laws, claiming they faced adverse action after filing their claims.

This complaint by the airline pilots presents a good example of the most common evidentiary theories for most race discrimination claims. In their complaint the pilots allege that United Airlines discriminated against minority pilots by disproportionately assigning them to temporary positions, giving them fewer promotions than similarly situated non-minorities, and subjecting them to subjective and arbitrary decision-making. They claim that the discrimination was not accidental, but made up a “pattern” or “practice” of discrimination at the airline. This is one of the major theories of employment discrimination, and would need to be shown by the airline pilots during trial through statistical evidence comparing the percentage of minorities promoted to certain positions to those who were qualified for such a position. As 24 airline pilots have already filed suit, it may not be erroneous to assume that they make up the majority of minority pilots at United Airlines and would represent the group that would be compared to the baseline percentage of qualified minorities.

As more and more African American women are abandoning use of chemical straighteners and blow-dryers and embracing their natural hair texture, as reported by Zina Saro-Wiwa in the New York Times last week, the issue of hair texture discrimination is again at the forefront of American discussions about race. The major box office release of Good Hair by Chris Rock , about the dangers of African American hair straightening techniques, and a flurry of articles in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and other media outlets on the “natural hair revolution” has reignited a national conversation about a topic that has since the end of the Civil Rights era been mostly taboo. What are the legal protections for those women who decide to stop chemically straightening their hair and keep it in its natural state? If a woman is denied a job or promotion because she wants to keep her hair curly but her boss thinks it looks unprofessional, does she have any recourse under antidiscrimination laws?

Hair texture discrimination falls under the category of race discrimination as hair texture, along with skin color or facial features, is considered a racially related characteristic of a person. As such, discrimination against a person solely due to the texture of their hair would be considered just as illegal as discrimination on the basis of the color of one’s skin or shape of one’s eyes under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related statutes. Recent cases on the issue of the legality of banning certain culturally African American hairstyles have blurred this understanding however. Based on one federal court’s decision in Rogers v. American Airlines, refusing to allow workers to wear cornrows, locks or other styles is usually not considered discrimination if there is no racial motive. This is because this discrimination may be due to another reason, such as safety, wish for employee uniformity or other business considerations. It’s clear that if a ban on such hairstyles is accompanied by racial comments or slurs, it may be found to be illegal as just a mask for underlying racial animus. But absent that, it may be seen as just another grooming policy, like banning long hair on men or requiring women to wear makeup at work, which have overwhelmingly been upheld by the courts if there is a reasonable business justification.

But discriminating against a woman or a man who decides to leave their hair in its natural texture, without braiding, cornrowing, locking or other such styling would probably be considered illegal race discrimination. Although there has been no direct case on the issue, the legal reasoning behind such an assumption is pretty clear. This is because there could probably be found to be no business justification for allowing a non-African American to leave her hair in her natural state while forbidding an African American to do so. Claims that very curly hair left unbraided or un-straightened in its natural state is “just unprofessional,” without more, would probably not withstand judicial scrutiny. Fear about customer or co-worker reactions is not a sufficient business justification for any kind of race discrimination, and would not survive as a justification for hair texture discrimination. As such, while banning men or women from wearing cornrows, dreadlocks or braids at the workplace, if there is no clear racial impetus, would probably be found to be okay, banning men or women from wearing their unbraided, un-straightened otherwise un-styled or loose natural hair would probably be found to be racial discrimination.

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