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Jury Says You Can't Say That Word. Period

by Gene Demby
Sep 3, 2013

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This a post about a racial slur, and there's no way around using it. Be warned.

Is it racist if a black boss calls his black employee nigger?

A federal jury in New York thinks so.

The jury awarded Brandi Johnson $30,000 in punitive damages (in addition to $250,000 in compensatory damages that she had previously been awarded) after Johnson argued that her former supervisor, Rob Carmona, routinely berated her and in one particularly heated rant called her and a co-worker niggers. Johnson is African-American. Carmona is a black man of Puerto Rican descent.

In her complaint against her former boss, Johnson painted a picture of a "hostile work environment" and said that Carmona made lewd and derogatory comments to her and other employees. After her initial complaints about Carmona's behavior were disregarded, Johnson recorded him going on a four-minute rant.

"I'm gonna give it to you hard-core ..." he could be heard saying on the tape."You and her are very bright ... but y'all act like niggers ... seriously."

But Carmona and his lawyers argued that his use of the word wasn't meant to be racially derogatory. Instead, he said, it's used in "multiple contexts" in black and Latino communities — sometimes derogatorily, sometimes affectionately.

But Johnson's attorney, Marjorie Sharpe, argued that those "multiple contexts" didn't matter.

"When you use the word nigger to an African-American, no matter how many alternative definitions that you may try to substitute with the word nigger, that is no different than calling a Hispanic by the worst possible word you can call a Hispanic, calling a homosexual male the worst possible word that you can call a homosexual male," Sharpe told jurors.

So that settles it, right? It's case law now: Nigger is bad, full stop.

We tend to get the same question in the comment section when we wrestle with this word: Why is it OK for black folks to use it while white folks cannot? The reasons black people use or don't use the word are complicated. And this ruling makes clear that black people can't use it toward other black people at work as a bludgeon.

And as we've argued before, courtrooms tend to be really lousy venues for the resolution of messy social questions. The arguments over just what to do with this nettlesome, long-lived word are far from over.

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