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AP Photo/Jason Strauss
So many awards, so few People magazine covers.

People magazine doesn’t seem to like putting black people on its cover

By Sonali Kohli

Former People magazine senior editor Tatsha Robertson filed a discrimination lawsuit against Time Inc. and her then-editor Betsy Gleick last week, alleging racial discrimination that led to her termination. In the complaint, Robertson argues that the magazine resists covering African-Americans, and points out the lack of diversity on the covers of People magazine—”since 2010, only 14 out of 265 covers have been focused on African-American individuals.”

Quartz looked back a bit further, to the last dozen years of People covers, and black people indeed have been consistently underrepresented on the front. The magazine usually publishes around 60 covers a year. The chart below shows the number of covers that have featured a black person as the main image, either alone or with one other person. (Hispanics were featured even less frequently than black people.)

It should be noted that race can be unclear based on appearance. These counts are based on appearance as well as public knowledge about the people on the covers, most of whom are celebrities.

Some of the cover subjects made repeat appearances—Halle Berry and Oprah each had three covers. And some of the cover subjects come from outside the field of entertainment—US President Barack Obama’s election put him and his family on the cover more than once, and US Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas made it in 2012.

On the one hand, the overall whiteness of the covers reflects the homogeneity of Hollywood as an industry—most power players are white, which is its own problem, and People certainly is not the only entertainment magazine catering to the majority. But the suit alleges that there was an intentional push to keep the covers as white as possible. For example, according to the complaint, Queen Latifah was being considered for a cover this past May:

Ms. Gleick, however, stated to Ms. Robertson that she did not think it was a good idea to have Queen Latifah as the feature on the cover because African-Americans Lupita Nyong’o and Robin Roberts were on the covers the prior two weeks. … Thus, while People Magazine is content with White persons on their cover for dozens of issues in a row, it balked at the idea of featuring three Black individuals in a row.

Queen Latifah ended up being relegated to the side of that week’s cover, while George Clooney occupied the main spot.

Even when the cover featured a serious topic centering around a black person—Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old killed in Florida—the suit alleges that Gleick was insistent on finding out whether the cover subject had any character flaws.

From the complaint: “[T]hough People Magazine put Trayvon Martin on its cover, Ms. Gleick was completely obsessed with attempting to unearth any potential negative fact about him before doing so. … Ms. Gleick repeatedly questioned whether he was a ‘good kid,’ yet never made similar efforts to vet White victims of crime.”

A spokeswoman for People declined to comment on the allegations, citing company policy against commenting on litigation.