Jay-Z won a court battle on Wednesday in a lawsuit against his company Roc Nation, on somewhat unusual grounds: The rapper-entrepreneur argued that the lack of African-American arbitrators presiding over the case left him susceptible to unconscious racial bias.
The suit has to do with Jay-Z’s Rocawear clothing brand, which he sold in 2007 to clothing company Iconix. Last year, Iconix sued Jay-Z in federal court, alleging that Roc Nation’s new line of baseball caps with the Roc Nation paper plane logo violated the two parties’ 2007 agreement; Jay-Z countersued, arguing that the agreement applied to Rocawear and not Roc Nation. The parties entered arbitration, in which each side is supposed to eliminate names from a list of 12 potential arbitrators picked from the American Arbitration Association database (four are chosen by each side, and the association also chooses four itself) until they both agree on one — which is where the suit saw its hangup.
In a court petition on Wednesday asking a New York Supreme Court judge to halt the arbitration, Jay-Z said that when he started looking at the list, he was “confronted with a stark reality”: there was an inability to “identify a single African-American arbitrator on the ‘Large and Complex Cases’ roster” supplied by the American Arbitration Association. Additionally, when he took that observation to the association, it searched for eligible arbitrators out of a 200-strong group and found only three African-Americans — one of whom had a conflict of interest and became ineligible.
That left “no choice at all,” said the rapper’s lawyer Alex Shapiro, who argued in the petition that a lack of black arbitrators “deprives litigants of color of a meaningful opportunity to have their claims heard by a panel of arbitrators reflecting their backgrounds and life experience,” putting Jay-Z at risk of unconscious bias by white arbitrators toward black defendants. If unresolved, the issue would “deprive black litigants like Mr. Carter and his companies of the equal protection of the laws,” he said.
The court upheld the petition and the arbitration will be paused until a hearing on December 11th; parties involved in the suit have not commented publicly, but Shapiro called the ruling “historic” for its spotlight on discrimination in legal proceedings.