Posted on March 2, 2006

The Weight of Words is Heavy

Diane Stafford, Kansas City Star, Feb. 23, 2006

The dollar bill, whipped by a wind gust, sailed from my hand in the Wendy’s drive-through.

Flailing at it, I managed to pin it to the side of the car.

“Oh, boy. That was interesting,” I chuckled, handing the window attendant the cash.

And then drove away utterly conflicted.

Why? Because the attendant was a young African-American, and I’d just said “boy” in his presence.

“He did know I wasn’t talking about him, didn’t he?”

I beat myself up as I drove away.

Such is the hypersensitive world of race relations.

You may think that’s an utterly ridiculous anecdote. And I’ll be the first to admit that, in a profession where words are often viewed as weapons, newspaper writers may be more wary than most about the use and abuse of “harmless” little words.

But that episode in the fast-food driveway was real, and quite accidentally it set the stage for my reading of an opinion handed down this week by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In it, the nation’s high court acknowledged that “boy” had a negative history in American race relations.

The opinion said that — even without any negative modifiers — ”boy” can be a loaded term when used in the presence of black employees.

This was a workplace discrimination case that the Supreme Court sent back to an appellate court. It instructed the lower court to reconsider a decision that had rejected a race discrimination claim by two longtime black employees of a Tyson Foods plant in Alabama.


A U.S. Supreme Court decision last week will make it easier for blacks to win racial discrimination lawsuits against their employers in Alabama, Florida and Georgia, employment discrimination lawyers say.

The decision, which in part says the term “boy” can be deemed discrimination against blacks at the workplace, will impact thousands of federal and state racial discrimination cases, as well as discrimination challenges during jury selections, said Marcia McCormick, assistant professor at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham.

“The courts are saying we’re going to be able to look at a lot more evidence to decide whether discrimination occurred,” she said. “More cases will go to a jury, and more verdicts will stand.”

The decision in Ash vs. Tyson Foods Inc. could lead to the reinstatement of a $3.5 million jury award for Anthony Ash and John Hithon, who say they were passed over for high-level positions at a Tyson plant in Gadsden for white men with less experience.

The trial judge in U.S. District Court in Birmingham overturned the jury’s award because of lack of evidence, and the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta affirmed the judge’s decision. The court of appeals ruled that a white supervisor calling Ash and Hithon “boy” was insufficient evidence of racial discrimination.

The court also ruled that Ash and Hithon’s experience had to be so much better than the whites “as virtually to jump off the page and slap you in the face,” a measurement the Supreme Court deemed “unhelpful and imprecise.”