Do Businesses Have the Right to Discriminate? [Reader Forum]

A young Muslim woman got fired by Abercrombie & Fitch for wearing a hijab -- then sued and won. readers debate the rights of employers vs. the rights of employees.

By Channing Kennedy Jul 11, 2011

Some of our most important work in Colorlines (in my humble opinion) is in showing how seemingly race-neutral systems can lead to real-world outcomes like the racial employment gap. But sometimes, race is actually pretty visible! Last week, news editor Jamilah King and editorial intern Bryan Gerhart told us about straight-up workplace discrimination specifically affecting young people of color, and held it up against the jaw-dropping stats about unemployment rates for this same demographic. We also learned about Jamilah’s part-time high-school gig at a sportswear store, at which she was silently demoted for wearing her hair natural.

The twist? It’s not so easy to hold non-governmental employers accountable for employee dress codes, written or implied, that push against hijabs or African hair. Is this, as Ron Paul argued when explaining why he’d have voted against the Civil Rights Act, the right of businesses to discriminate? Or is this indefensible xenophobia? Here’s what you had to say.

TaRessa Stovall, commenting on Facebook:

and yet we criticize folk for using bleaching cream…

Beatriz Reyes:

It’s amazing how people call a certain race "lazy" without understanding that the reason for high unemployment rate is because of racial discrimination.

Esmeralda Perez de Lopez:

[…] When we work in public spaces where people see us we represent that company and it is sad that these companies do not value us. Specifically these gringo stores that are selling an image of blond hair blue eyes, they need to realize that their customers are no longer just Johnny and Jane but Jamal, juan, and Jamila. Hurt them where it counts, their sales.

Kathleen Nicole O’Neal, responding to career counselor Melian Carter-Gilkey’s suggestion that young people seek out unpaid internships as an alternative to competing with out-of-work adults for part-time work:

I hate the idea that young people should look for unpaid work. People need money to live and when these counselors and such don’t factor that into their analysis they are woefully out of touch with reality.

And in the site’s comments, this thread that was kicked off by R_Harwood:

A private employer is not the same as the government. I disagree with the notion that Abercrombie should be forced to employ someone no matter how they dress. If they discriminated against people of color outright that is wrong. But for a company to say that someone cannot wear a hijab is different. Should they be forced to employ a conservative Christian that will not wear their outfits? Their floor representavies are essentially models. If you look at their commercials all races are included. But, not even people with a five-o’clock shadow. Or with less than perfect teeth. Or with acne. […]

Does Abercrombie have any rights? If they are inclusive of every color, can they have a dress code or an image they want to project? Or do they not have any? Should we demand that every company embrace every religious practice? I am greatly anticipating the next Playboy Magazine centerfold, which confirms to this new totalitarian regime.

a response from Ced Lawson:

The only problem is that the employee in question wasn’t a floor model; she was backroom stock personnel. The manager agreed that the head scarf was not a problem.

In the past, Abercrombie and Fitch won a suit based on employee presentation, by making the the claim that they did not have actual "sales associates" but rather "floor models" who had to fit the brand’s image to a further extent. But the employee in question was not a floor model and didn’t try to become one. She wanted to do her work with dignity and respect for her religion and was later denied the opportunity.

Comparing race and ethnicity to acne or five o clock shadows is apples and oranges. You cannot change your race; you can shave and use product to potentially clear one’s face.

Abercombie does have rights. As mentioned above, they exercised those rights and further distinguished how they’d like to present their brand. Discriminating on race or religion should not, however, be a company policy.

R_Harwood again, in response to Ced:

I was not comparing race to or ethnicity to five-o’clock shadows. I was comparing someone’s dress preferences when based on religion. You are right though, that still is not a fair comparision. I can admit, I feel that my faith is a part of me. And when I randomly select a sweater it is not. I have an easy time praising a color-blind work place. I have a hard time accepting, though, that an employer must cater to everyone’s relegious prefrences.

I would be right there up in arms with y’all if an employer did not employ people of a particular faith outright. Most of the time, people’s faith does not enter the workplace, and where it does, it does not substantially clash with the company. For example, if a devout Muslim worked at a Accounting firm, and could not drink at a company picnic, and was fired for this, that would be heinous, and I would be appalled. However, if the same person worked at a bar, and would never accept customers’ shots, than I think the circumstances are totally different. The bar’s rights should not be reduced to nil in the face of his desires.

One of the most beautiful principles of our nation is freedom of religion. But this means that you have the freedom to practice your religion without goverment interference. It does not mean that you have the freedom to practice your relegion when it infringes upon the rights of another person. We are all islands of rights, if you will, and the government cannot invade our islands. This was not the government, however, rather, a private entitiy wishing to maintain its protected right of operating free enterprise. And a clothing store with a dress code for all employes seems perfectly reasonable to me.

And in response to R_Harwood, a last word from parkwood1920:

How does wearing a hijab infringe upon another person’s rights? And how does it violate a dress code? Hijabs and abayas (the long robe some Muslim women wear) perfectly conform to most institutional dress codes, so your argument doesn’t make sense. This company’s "rights" (seriously?) aren’t even remotely being violated by an employee exercising her First Amendment right of religion.

Big corporations like Abercrombie & Fitch don’t need any more apologists and defenders. The fact that they’ve been sued for race and gender discrimination so many times—by youth workers no less—should give all of us pause.

Would you want your teen or college-age child to put up with this crap on the job? I didn’t think so.

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