EXCLUSIVE: Last April, Deadline posted a very harsh “goodbye” email sent WME Entertainment agency-wide from an African-American “floater” working in its NYC office. It generated some of the most contentious comments which Deadline has ever experienced. (WME Floater Sends Harsh Goodbye Email) The subject of the floater’s email was the lack of diversity (specifically, no black or latino agents and only one Asian out of more than 50 white execs) in the WME office and the lack of opportunity for his advancement. Although this floater had brought a music client to the agency before he even started there — 7-time Grammy nominated artist Jazmine Sullivan — he was not rewarded. When he finally got fed up and told WME brass he could make this a much larger issue, he got the agency to pay him for 5 months to basically look for another job. (Afterwards, WME carried out a witch-hunt: Mass Reprimands, 4 Firings At WME Over That Floater’s “Goodbye” Email) Now that floater, Marcus Washington is a pro se litigant suing WME for racial discrimination and seeking $25 million. (“Pro se” legal representation means advocating on one’s own behalf before a court, rather than being represented by a lawyer.) “Race is nothing but a social construct and has meaning only because we have allowed ourselves to be defined by it,” Washington said in a statement to Deadline. “It doesn’t determine ability or one’s capabilities and this case challenges this divisive myth that has allowed the human race, and particularly this country, from ever reaching its full potential. We must no longer allow our past to define our future.”
With his PR agency saying he is “standing up for his civil and human rights”, Washington is suing WME for “disparate impact and treatment racial discrimination, aiding and abetting and retaliation” in the 80-page complaint filed in the Southern District Court of New York filed in late December. “Founded in 1898, the William Morris Agency’s (now known as William Morris Endeavor Entertainment) struggle with race has paralleled that of America. This largely influential company operates mostly behind the scenes in creating societal and cultural ideologies, norms, values and stereotypes through powerful tools of conditioning and persuasion such as television and film under the guise of ‘entertainment’, has continued to engage non-exclusively in a pattern and practice of individual and systemic discriminatory policies and practices for over a century, resulting in the non-existence of minorities from working at the decision making level of its business – even in one of the country’s most racially and ethnically diverse cities, New York City.”
According to a description of the complaint provided to Deadline, at the start of Washington’s employment in September of 2008, he was the only African American hired into the Agent Trainee program:
There were zero African American or Hispanic Agents and there was one Asian Agent out of more than 50 White executives. Although Mr. Washington’s credentials surpassed that of any of his peers, including receiving a Masters in Music Business from the University of Miami in May of 2008 and most notably working for two years as the former co-manager to singer/songwriter Jazmine Sullivan who is now a 8x GRAMMY nominated recording artist and client of William Morris, he was forced to start at the bottom of the racially homogenous company in which advancement is based largely on networking and mentoring, not actual merit and ability.
Over the decades, there has been a shift in how discrimination manifests itself. No longer overt, it generally operates today in a covert fashion that’s mostly out of the sight of consciousness – creating a complex and tangled web when identifying the source of the problem, although its intended goals are still achieved. Individual acts of discrimination have continued in large part because the organization’s structure and its institutional practices encourage it. This is evident in the numerous examples provided in the complaint detailing specifically how Mr. Washington was deliberately and intentionally targeted by various staff and Sarah Winiarski and Jeff Meade of Human Resources because of his race, color and/or national origin, no matter how well he performed.
One instance included Mr. Washington discovering a set of emails in which he was blatantly lied to by a staff member to Human Resources as having showed up a “few hours late” to an appointment. Another in which he was lied on by an Agent after only working with him for an hour, resulting in Mr. Washington soon after being given dead end assignments for 81 out of the next 91 business days. An Agent making a racially insensitive comment after calling Mr. Washington by the name of the other African American Trainee employed, confusing them simply because he saw a “black guy” sitting at the desk. Subjective evaluations which allowed Human Resources to make sure Mr. Washington never rose above the glass ceiling by waiting months to notify him of alleged problems, rating him low in areas he was never given the opportunity to perform in and refusing to comply with the company’s “open door,” “equal employment opportunity,” and “reporting harassment, discrimination and retaliation” policies. After finally speaking to upper management about his belief that he was being discriminated against, his comments were downplayed and he was blamed for his inability to be promoted. After stating that “he could make this a much bigger issue,” he was offered five month salary to “look for another job.” At the time of Mr. Washington’s exit, less than 5 out of the more than 250 Agents/executives (less than 2%) employed at William Morris were African American.
In the years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the unemployment rate for African Americans has remained at a rate double that of whites, while the EEOC reported a record high for the number of complaints for workplace discrimination in 2010 – highlighting both the law’s ineffectiveness and employer’s continued unwillingness to provide equal employment opportunities to people of color in this country. As the nation continues down its slippery economic slope resulting in increased unemployment rates for all citizens, African Americans are being and will continue to be hit the hardest. But as this case will demonstrate, this is not the result of a lack of qualified minority candidates in the marketplace, but part of a much deeper issue that is not adequately being addressed – racism. This statement is supported by the company’s actions after Mr. Washington left the company and filed a complaint with the EEOC on June 3, 2010, in which the company hired five African Americans in one month after receiving a letter from the EEOC on June 9, 2010 when in the year and a half Mr. Washington was employed, only 2 African Americans were hired into the Trainee program.”
According to Washington’s PR firm, he “is using this case as a mirror to the rest of society, reflecting ugly truths and challenging the notion that America has become a ‘post-racial society’, while also attacking the establishment of white supremacy that continues to oppress people of color in a quest civil and human rights.”