Can the NAACP legally fire Rachel Dolezal? Here’s an employment lawyer’s take.


Late last week, Rachel Dolezal, the President of the Spokane Chapter of the NAACP and a leader in the black community, was outed by her parents as being white.

The controversy caught a lot of people by surprise, most notably, the Spokane Chapter. Amidst a flurry of activity over the weekend — just check your Facebook and Twitter feeds — Ms. Dolezal planned to address the issue at a monthly meeting tonight. However, the Spokane Chapter announced on its Facebook page that the meeting would be postponed “to continue discussion with regional and national NAACP leaders.”

Now, what if this discussion consummated in firing Ms. Dolezal? Would that be legal?

Ms. Dolezal cannot be fired because of her race.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Ms. Dolezal would (or should) lose her job because of her race. For starters, there are other NAACP Chapter leaders who are white. Additionally, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful to base an employment decision on, among other things, race. No employer can allow an employee’s race to motivate an employment decision. No exceptions.

That includes a bona fide occupational qualification (BFOQ) defense, which presents a narrow exception to the Title VII non-discrimination rules. In certain limited circumstances, Title VII permits employers to make employment decisions on the basis of a sex, age, national origin, and religion, where reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise. But race can never be a BFOQ. So, this is not one of them.

Otherwise, the Spokane Chapter can fire Ms. Dolezal for any reason or no reason at all.

Absent a contract for some guaranteed length of employment, private-sector employees are considered at will. At-will employment carries with it no job-length guarantees. Indeed, an employee can lose his/her job (or resign) at any time. That said, most employers don’t decide to terminate employees on a whim.

Indeed, if the controversy surrounding Ms. Dolezal results in her losing her job, the Spokane Chapter seemingly would have cause to support its decision; namely, reports that Ms. Dolezal misrepresented her credentials in an application for a Spokane police ombudsman commission. And, as Ms. Dolezal acknowledges, recent events have affected her credibility.  Lies and omissions, if present here, are generally a bad way to begin and grow an employment relationship.

How this plays out is anyone’s guess. But, if the Spokane Chapter wants to fire Ms. Dolezal, it should have ample opportunity (and legal grounds) to do so.

UPDATE (6/15/15)

Rachel Dolezal resigned today. That’s how this played out.

Image Credit: Eastern Washington University.
  • JustNiz

    She’s clearly a nutjob so shouldn’t have any job with any level of responsibility, but I can’t believe her quitting was actually her own choice. Seems like the NAACP found a way to get rid of her without also appearing obviously racist.

    • I’d be surprised of racial animus motivated this resignation.

  • Steve Hoffman

    Maybe she was exposing the point that the question of race should not have been on the application or even asked for as a requirement of employment. Just like a gay person has the right to declare their preferred gender. I think she should have stuck to her guns and fought the issue. I think she had a great case. The NAACP is suppose to represent people of color is in itself discriminating and does not represent their charter to fight for the rights of ALL People.

    • Or, maybe, she’s a liar liar pants on fire, who overtly misled the NAACP into thinking she was African-American.

      (Too snarky, sorry).

      I respectfully disagree.

      • Steve Hoffman

        Your opinion, but why should employment have anything to do with race in the first place, especially in an organization that fights for the rights of all people to be treated equally and without the judgment of color. Many of the people in the NAACP seem to be hypocritical in what the say they stand for. In a world where gender is left up to an individual, I see no reason why Rachel can’t choose who she wants to be.

        • I agree with you, Steve, that race should have nothing to do with employment. Indeed, the NAACP has a number of non-African American Chapter Presidents. But, the issue here is not race; Ms. Dolezal’s blatantly misled the Spokane chapter by misrepresenting her credentials.