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Atlanta Journal Constitution: Civil rights leaders condemn ruling on use of word ‘boy'

Monday, October 25, 2010

Civil rights leaders are denouncing an Atlanta appeals court ruling that testimony about a white supervisor calling a black employee "boy" cannot be used as evidence of race discrimination.

In a motion filed last week, eleven civil rights pioneers asked the court to reconsider its finding that a plant manager's alleged use of the word "boy" was "conversational" and amounted to "ambiguous stray remarks" that were not made in the context of employment decisions. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the comments did not show racial animosity.

The motion, written by lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the 11th Circuit's reasoning “does not stand the test of history, experience, reality or the common social understanding of race relations in the country, particularly the South.”

If allowed to stand, the ruling will impede racial discrimination claims that rely, at least in part, on the use of racially coded slurs in the workplace, the motion said. The 11th Circuit's decisions set precedent for federal cases in Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

Among those signing onto the filing: Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor who was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a founder of the SCLC; Dorothy Cotton, the SCLC’s former educational director; and former SCLC president the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

The court’s reasoning “does not stand the test of history, experience, reality or the common social understanding of race relations in the country, particularly the South,” said their motion, written by lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. If allowed to stand, the ruling will impede racial discrimination claims that rely, at least in part, on the use of racially coded slurs in the workplace, the motion said.In a certain context – and Southerners know what it is -- the word “boy” is one of the oldest and most demeaning of racial epithets. During the civil rights struggle, black men sometimes wore placards stating simply, “I am a man.”
 
Now, a black Alabama man is pursuing a discrimination lawsuit against his employer, Tyson Foods, and has offered evidence that the white plant manager who denied him a promotion had once referred to him as “boy.” The man, John Hithon, won the suit and $1.75 million and then saw the verdict overturned by the federal appeals court in Atlanta. So he retried the case, won $1.3 million the next time but lost again in the same court of appeals.
 
A central issue on appeal is the term “boy” and what it means.
 
In a ruling in August, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the manager’s alleged use of the word was “conversational” and amounted to “ambiguous stray remarks” that were not made in the context of employment decisions. It was not evidence of racial animosity, the court said in throwing out the most recent verdict.
 
That’s nonsense, say 11 civil rights pioneers, who assert that there can be no confusion about what a white man means when he calls a black man “boy.” In a recent court filing, they are asking the 11th Circuit to reconsider its decision. The motion is pending.
 
The court’s reasoning “does not stand the test of history, experience, reality or the common social understanding of race relations in the country, particularly the South,” said their motion, written by lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. If allowed to stand, the ruling will impede racial discrimination claims that rely, at least in part, on the use of racially coded slurs in the workplace, the motion said.In a certain context – and Southerners know what it is -- the word “boy” is one of the oldest and most demeaning of racial epithets. During the civil rights struggle, black men sometimes wore placards stating simply, “I am a man.”
 
Now, a black Alabama man is pursuing a discrimination lawsuit against his employer, Tyson Foods, and has offered evidence that the white plant manager who denied him a promotion had once referred to him as “boy.” The man, John Hithon, won the suit and $1.75 million and then saw the verdict overturned by the federal appeals court in Atlanta. So he retried the case, won $1.3 million the next time but lost again in the same court of appeals.
 
A central issue on appeal is the term “boy” and what it means.
 
In a ruling in August, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the manager’s alleged use of the word was “conversational” and amounted to “ambiguous stray remarks” that were not made in the context of employment decisions. It was not evidence of racial animosity, the court said in throwing out the most recent verdict.
 
That’s nonsense, say 11 civil rights pioneers, who assert that there can be no confusion about what a white man means when he calls a black man “boy.” In a recent court filing, they are asking the 11th Circuit to reconsider its decision. The motion is pending.
 
The court’s reasoning “does not stand the test of history, experience, reality or the common social understanding of race relations in the country, particularly the South,” said their motion, written by lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. If allowed to stand, the ruling will impede racial discrimination claims that rely, at least in part, on the use of racially coded slurs in the workplace, the motion said.