In a case that gave a legal airing to the debate over use of the N-word among blacks, a federal jury has rejected a black manager’s argument that it was a term of love and endearment when he aimed it at black employee.
Jurors were weighing punitive damages Tuesday after finding last week that the manager’s four-minute rant was hostile and discriminatory, and awarding $250,000 in compensatory damages.
The case against Rob Carmona and the employment agency he founded, STRIVE East Harlem, hinged on the 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 when Carmona repeatedly targeted her with the slur during a March 2012 tirade about inappropriate workplace attire and unprofessional behavior.
Johnson, who taped the remarks after her complaints about his verbal abuse were disregarded, said she fled to the restroom and cried for 45 minutes.
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.”
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.
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.