Discrimination and Language: The Word 'Boy'

Email a Friend
From New York Times , and

Sometimes a word is just a word. But other times, it’s an indicator of something more troubling on the part of the speaker. Take, for example, the word “boy.” When being used to refer to a small child, most of us don’t think twice. But when the word “boy” refers to an adult black man, and the speaker is his white supervisor who’s just passed him up for a promotion, it takes on a much different meaning.

It’s for this reason that John Hithon, an employee of the Tyson chicken processing plant in Gadsden, Alabama, sued his employers for workplace discrimination.

Two separate juries awarded Hithon back pay and punitive damages, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that the use of the word "boy" could be racist and needed to be examined in the context in which it was spoken, sending the case back to the 11th Circuit. Here’s the rub: on the third trying of the fourteen-year-old case, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and threw out all prior rulings on the case.

Adam Liptak, Supreme Court correspondent for The New York Times, explains how this new ruling came about. U. W. Clemon also weighs in. As a practicing attorney and Alabama’s first black federal judge, he’s outraged by how this case has played out.