The Meme That Derailed an Executive’s Career

Over the past few years, powerful white executives have lost their jobs because of racist statements they made to employees and others. John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John’s, used a racial slur on a conference call; Greg Glassman, the founder and C.E.O. of CrossFit posted a tweet that made light of the killing of George Floyd, and spoke belligerently to CrossFit gym owners about race in a video call.

But Mr. Demsey is an executive whose past three decades were a case study in diversity being good for business, and some of his most prominent defenders are members of fashion’s Black power elite.

“Racism may not be the way to describe everything that’s wrong with the business, but it is certainly dominated by nepotism. Nepotism toward white models, nepotism toward white actors, and nepotism toward white editors,” said Steve Stoute, who in the 1990s headed Urban Music at Sony Music and became the executive vice president of Interscope Geffen A&M and then started a marketing and branding agency, Translation, working with the N.B.A., the N.F.L., Jay-Z, Nas and Beyoncé, among others. “John Demsey was one of the first people to break that cycle.”

In the apology Mr. Demsey posted on Feb. 25, he said that he hadn’t read the meme. But no one else had posted it for him. (Although Mr. Demsey does not have a nondisclosure agreement, his financial settlement is contingent upon his not disparaging Estée Lauder, and he declined, through a lawyer, to comment for this article.)

The meme was created by Chris Taliaferro, a 39-year-old self-professed Chingy superfan, who is Black, and said in an interview that the original post was intended as an absurdist joke about the desire of people to party through a pandemic. (A good-time party rapper no edgier than Bruno Mars, Chingy’s last major hit was in 2005.)

Mr. Taliaferro didn’t expect someone like Mr. Demsey to repost it.

“As a Caucasian executive of a multibillion dollar company, you have to have situational awareness,” said Mr. Taliaferro, who declined to provide his job title or occupation because his own employers have had issues with his posts.

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