The N-word Goes on Trial
A federal jury has rejected the argument that use of the N-word among blacks can be a culturally acceptable term of love and endearment, deciding its use in the workplace is hostile and discriminatory no matter what.
Jurors last week awarded $250,000 in compensatory damages to a black employment agency worker who was the target of an N-word-laced rant by her black boss, and they return to a Manhattan federal court Tuesday to decide on punitive damages.
The case against Rob Carmona and the employment agency he founded, STRIVE East Harlem, gave legal airing to what some see as a complex double standard surrounding the word: It’s a degrading slur when uttered by whites but can be used at times with impunity among blacks.
But 38-year-old Brandi Johnson told jurors that being black didn’t make it any less hurtful to be the target of what her attorney called Carmona’s “four-minute nigger tirade” about inappropriate workplace attire and unprofessional behavior.
Johnson, who taped the March 2012 remarks after her complaints about his verbal abuse were disregarded, said she fled to the restroom and cried for 45 minutes.
“I was offended. I was hurt. I felt degraded. I felt disrespected. I was embarrassed,” Johnson testified.
In closing arguments, Johnson’s attorney Marjorie M. Sharpe said Carmona’s use of the word was intended to offend “and any evidence that defendants put forth to the contrary is simply ridiculous.”
“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.
But defense lawyers said the 61-year-old Carmona, a black man of Puerto Rican descent, had a much different experience with the word. Raised by a single mother in a New York City public housing project, he became addicted to heroin in his teens and broke it with the help of drug counselors who employed tough love and tough language.
Carmona went on to earn a master’s degree from Columbia University before co-founding STRIVE in the 1980s. Now, most of STRIVE’s employees are black women, defense attorney Diane Krebs told jurors in her opening statement.
“And Mr. Carmona is himself black, as you yourselves can see,” Krebs said.
In his testimony, Carmona defended his use of the word, saying he used it with Johnson to convey that she was “too emotional, wrapped up in her, at least the negative aspects of human nature.”
Then he explained that the word has “multiple contexts” in the black and Latino communities, sometimes indicating anger, sometimes love.
Carmona said he might put his arm around a longtime friend in the company of another and say: “This is my nigger for 30 years.”
“That means my boy, I love him, or whatever,” he said.
He was asked if he meant to indicate love when he called Johnson the word.
“Yes, I did,” he responded.
The controversy is a blemish on STRIVE, which has been heralded for helping people with troubled backgrounds get into the workforce. Its employment model, which was described in a CBS’ “60 Minutes” piece as “part boot camp, part group therapy,” claims to have helped nearly 50,000 people find work since 1984.
Sharpe told jurors that STRIVE’s tough-love program cannot excuse Carmona’s behavior.
“Well, if calling a person a nigger and subjecting them to a hostile work environment is part of STRIVE’s tough love, then STRIVE needs to be reminded that this type of behavior is illegal and cannot be tolerated,” she said.
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