Ask any black man in this country what they would think if a white man called them "boy," and the answer would be the same: racial insult, degrading and maybe even fighting words.
That word is akin to describing a black person with the N-word.
That's why it's interesting that a $1.75-million discrimination lawsuit verdict in favor of an Alabama black man, who says he was denied a promotion and called "boy" by his white manager, keeps getting overturned. The court says that the white managers use of the word "boy" did not display "racial animosity" and that the use of the word was "conversational."
The Atlanta Journal Constitution writes:
A central issue on appeal is the term "boy" and what it means. The federal appeals court in Atlanta found that the manager's alleged use of the term was "conversational" and amounted to "ambiguous stray remarks" that were not made in the context of employment decisions. The court said it found no evidence of racial animosity.
That ruling has stirred some of the giants of the Civil Rights Movement who are justifiably pissed off.
The court's ruling simply "does not stand the test of history, experience, reality or the common social understanding of race relations in the country, particularly the South."
For decades, the term "boy" coming from a white person's mouth was a way to verbally degrade a grown man. It was a constant reminder that blacks did not have equal standing under the law. It was a reinforcement that there was a legal caste system in place in this country and that black men were at the bottom of that system.
Even if you had gone to college, earned degrees, supported a family, raised up children - achievements and responsibilities that are characteristic of responsible adults - you could still be called a "boy." In fact, it's degrading to call any man a boy.
John Hithon, the worker who filed the lawsuit, knows this. So does every black man in America.
Hithon spent 13 years working in a Tyson chicken plant. He was a low-level manager still doing difficult work. A better opportunity opened as a shift supervisor and Hithon applied but was passed over in favor of two white candidates from a different Tyson plant. Hithon thought that the fact that the manager regularly referred to black as "boys" had something to do with it.
The lawyer in the case was chastised for trying to insert testimony that equated the word "boy" with the word "n*gger."
U. W. Clemon, the first black assigned to the federal bench in Alabama, challenged that decision:
"I'm outraged, because not only does the Supreme Court realize that the word 'boy' can be racially offensive, all you have to do is pick up a dictionary, pull up Wikipedia, and both will indicate that the word "boy" can be used as a racial epithet; it's racially derogatory," Judge Clemon said in a radio interview.
The Supreme Court has rebuked the federal appeals court in Atlanta and a jury has ruled twice in Hithon's favor, and there is historical precedent for the idea that certain words are reprehensible. In Chaplinsky V. New Hampshire, the court held that:
There are certain well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech, the prevention and punishment of which have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or "fighting" words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.
I would count the use of the word "boy" in the context of a white man directing it to a black man as one of those words.
Republican Rep. Geoff Davis was forced to apologize to President Barack Obama, after he called him a "boy" who was unequipped to handle national security duties if he was elected president:
"I'm going to tell you something: That boy's finger does not need to be on the button," Davis said. "He could not make a decision in that simulation that related to a nuclear threat to this country."
In his letter, Davis acknowledged that his choice of words was "poor," quite an understatement.
Civil rights leaders are doing the right thing by standing up. Far from an obscure lawsuit, this case represents an attempt to rewrite history. If we deny the fact that "boy" has a history as a horribly derogatory word that was used to intimidate, oppress and degrade black men, then it's possible that blatant abuse will once again become acceptable as the law of the land.
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