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Court Ignores America's Grim History of Racial Discrimination

Julian Letton,
Racial Justice Program
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September 8, 2010

It would seem, at least according to a recent federal court decision, that referring to a black man as “boy” has no racial implications whatsoever, but is merely “conversational.”

As Adam Liptak reported yesterday in the New York Times, a federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled that John Hithon, a black employee at Tyson foods who claims he was discriminated against because of his race, could not rely on the judicial system for relief. The case began after Hithon was passed over for promotion when two jobs as shift supervisors opened up. This was after Hithon “spent 13 tough years working his way into the lower ranks of management at a Tyson Foods chicken plant in Gadsden, Ala.” He sued Tyson for racial discrimination. As evidence, he cited his manager’s tendency to refer to black employees as “boy.” According to the Times, the court had trouble seeing the connection between that epithet and Hithon’s allegation of racial discrimination:

“The usages were conversational,” the majority explained . . . and “nonracial in context.” Even if “somehow construed as racial,” the unsigned 2-to-1 decision went on, “the comments were ambiguous stray remarks” that were not proof of employment discrimination.

This decision came after two mostly white Alabama juries — one in 2002 and the other in 2007 — ruled in Hithon’s favor. But the appeals court apparently had very little confidence in those juries’ ability to understand the language of racial discrimination — it ruled that “a reasonable jury could not have found” that a white supervisor addressing a black employee as “boy” constituted evidence of discrimination.

This misguided decision highlights the pitfalls of treating the law as if it exists in a historical or cultural vacuum. Liptak points out in an earlier iteration of this case, the same appellate court rested its analysis on a shaky distinction:

“The use of ‘boy’ when modified by a racial classification like ‘black’ or ‘white’ is evidence of discriminatory intent,” the panel said. But “the use of ‘boy’ alone is not evidence of discrimination.”

Racial lessons are clearly hard for America to learn. This case is haunted by the legacy of the Memphis Sanitation Strike (among many historical examples). When African-American sanitation workers went on strike and held up the now-iconic “I AM A MAN” signs, it was more than a general call for equal rights; it was a specific response to the legacy of racial discrimination in the workplace. It sought to change a world in which, as described by one of the sanitation workers, “white supervisors called grown men ‘boy’ and sent them home without pay for the slightest infraction.” The battle for workplace equality was intimately tied to the battle against routine acts of disrespect.

And yet, here we are again. This recent decision flies in the face of the work of countless civil rights activists who aimed to dismantle both the infantilization and workplace discrimination suffered by black workers. It seems that even in the era of Obama, legal institutions sometimes reveal themselves as startling ignorant of — or indifferent to — the stark history and ongoing reality of racial discrimination.

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