The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals finally recognized that a supervisor’s use of the word ‘boy’ to refer to black employees is sufficient evidence of racism. It was the third time the court ruled on the case since a reprimand from the Supreme Court for finding that ‘boy’ was not evidence of discrimination. Last week’s ruling overturned a three-judge panel’s 2010 decision rejecting the evidence as insufficient, even under the Court’s guidance: “Although . . . The disputed word will not always be evidence of racial animus, it does not follow that the word, standing alone, is always benign.” The Court said the meaning may depend on “context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom, and historical usage.”
Having grown up in the South, I am dumbfounded as to why it took the court so long to acknowledge that referring to a black man as “boy” is racist. Southerners have become accustomed to all manner of subtle racism, but there is nothing subtle about calling a black man “boy.” In an amicus brief, civil rights leaders presented historical evidence of the use of the word to subordinate and emasculate black men. The brief stated, “If not a proxy for ‘nigger,’ it is at the very least a close cousin.”
In overruling its 2010 opinion, the Eleventh Circuit noted new testimony from the plaintiff’s second trial regarding the manager’s use of the word. One of the employees spoke of the word’s racist meaning and made a similar comparison to the N-word. Another said the manager’s tone of voice was “mean and derogatory.” Even without this evidence, the judges on the Eleventh Circuit must have been aware of the significance of “boy.” (Then again, this is the court that previously held that the word was not racist unless modified by “black.”)
No one who has witnessed racism in the South could doubt that the testimony in Ash v. Tyson Foods is evidence of racism. It’s no wonder a jury twice found for the plaintiffs, only to be overturned by the appeals court (until last week’s opinion). Employers these days are more aware of civil rights laws, so racist managers will likely avoid explicitly racist remarks. Courts will have to grapple with discrimination that is under the surface. It seems the Eleventh Circuit is finally learning how.