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Monday, October 25, 2010

Civil rights leaders condemn ruling on use of word ‘boy'  |

Civil rights leaders condemn ruling on use of word ‘boy' |

In a certain context – and Southerners know what it is -- the word “boy” is one of the oldest and most demeaning of racial epithets. During the civil rights struggle, black men sometimes wore placards stating simply, “I am a man.”

Now, a black Alabama man is pursuing a discrimination lawsuit against his employer, Tyson Foods, and has offered evidence that the white plant manager who denied him a promotion had once referred to him as “boy.” The man, John Hithon, won the suit and $1.75 million and then saw the verdict overturned by the federal appeals court in Atlanta. So he retried the case, won $1.3 million the next time but lost again in the same court of appeals.

A central issue on appeal is the term “boy” and what it means.

In a ruling in August, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that the manager’s alleged use of the word was “conversational” and amounted to “ambiguous stray remarks” that were not made in the context of employment decisions. It was not evidence of racial animosity, the court said in throwing out the most recent verdict.

That’s nonsense, say 11 civil rights pioneers, who assert that there can be no confusion about what a white man means when he calls a black man “boy.” In a recent court filing, they are asking the 11th Circuit to reconsider its decision. The motion is pending.

The court’s reasoning “does not stand the test of history, experience, reality or the common social understanding of race relations in the country, particularly the South,” said their motion, written by lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. If allowed to stand, the ruling will impede racial discrimination claims that rely, at least in part, on the use of racially coded slurs in the workplace, the motion said.

Among those signing onto the filing: Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor who was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a founder of the SCLC; Dorothy Cotton, the SCLC’s former educational director; and former SCLC president the Rev. Joseph Lowery.

“It’s ridiculous to think that anyone in the court system, anyone who’s been to law school, would not understand this word -- particularly in the South -- was used to belittle African-Americans,” said the Rev. C.T. Vivian, a former SCLC executive who also signed onto the motion.

“There have been times when white men called each other boy – like a good old boy – and that was friendly to them,” he said. “It was never friendly when it was said to African-Americans. It’s a sad part of Southern history.”

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