A federal jury in New York awarded a plaintiff $30,000 in punitive damages and $250,000 in compensatory damages after the woman brought claims against her former manager who went on a four-minute tirade laced with use of the N-word. The unusual part of this decision: the plaintiff is black and so is her former boss.
In Johnson v. STRIVE East Harlem Employment Group, the plaintiff, Brandi Johnson, brought claims against her employer pursuant to 42 USC § 1981 and several New York City administrative code provisions as a result of being berated and called the N-word by her boss, Rob Carmona. She alleged that Mr. Carmona’s behavior– and more specifically his language– was discriminatory and created a hostile work environment. Some of the language used is reproduced in the 124-paragraph complaint, which identifies Mr. Carmona as an “Hispanic-American.” However, Mr. Carmona’s attorneys described him as a black man of Puerto Rican descent.
The defense argued that the N-word is a term of “love and endearment” when used by African Americans toward other African Americans. Mr. Carmona, who has a master’s degree from Columbia University, explained that the word has “multiple contexts” in the black and Latino communities, sometimes indicating anger, sometimes love. Mr. Carmona said he might put his arm around a longtime friend in the company of another and say: “This is my n—– for 30 years.”
The plaintiff disagreed and told jurors that Mr. Carmona’s skin color didn’t make it any less hurtful when he repeatedly targeted her with the slur during a rant about inappropriate workplace attire and unprofessional behavior. The jurors agreed with the plaintiff and found that a black man using the N-word to describe or refer to another black person created a hostile work environment.
A search of Urban Dictionary, which has been used with increasing frequency by courts–including those in Wisconsin–shows that at least some people would agree with Mr. Carmona’s definition of the N-word. One definition:
A word that everyone else is afraid to define except in utter seriousness, for fear of being branded a rascist, in total ignorance of the colloquial usage of the word, its characterization in popular culture, and the populations of people it is used most by.
The definition does not explain the proper or acceptable colloquial usage, however. Another definition seems to be at odds even with itself:
1. describes an ignorant, uneducated, foolish individual regardless of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, etc.; 2. endearing term between two or more individual to describe a friendship or bond.
While undoubtedly Mr. Carmona was at least somewhat correct when he said that the word has multiple contexts in different cultures, this verdict demonstrates that the nuances of those paradigms may make little or no difference at all in an employment situation. Some articles about this case use titles like “Jury Rules That Black People Cannot Use the N-Word.” However, the verdict is not quite so broad. Instead, taken as a whole, it applies to a specific fact situation that involved several other insults and degrading remarks. The verdict shows that it is not so much the intent of the speaker that matters–it is the recipient’s perception that counts (as long as it was a reasonable one).