Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


N-word on trial: Should the law hold a double standard?

The N-word is unacceptable from whites, but some argue it is socially acceptable within the African-American community. A recent court case challenges that double standard, arguing that it is a degrading term regardless of the race of the speaker.

By Larry NeumeisterAssociated Press / September 3, 2013

Brandi Johnson (l.) and her lawyer, Marjorie M. Sharpe, leave federal court in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013, after a civil jury awarded $30,000 in punitive damages in addition to the $250,000 in compensatory damages that had been awarded last week. Johnson recorded her employer delivering an N-word laced tirade against her.

Larry Neumeister/AP

Enlarge

NEW YORK

In a case that gave a legal airing to the debate over use of the N-word within the African-American community, a federal jury has rejected the argument by an African-American manager that it was a term of love and endearment when he aimed it at an African-American employee.

Skip to next paragraph

Jurors awarded $30,000 in 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 between African-Americans.

But 38-year-old Brandi Johnson told jurors that his race 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.

"I was offended. I was hurt. I felt degraded. I felt disrespected. I was embarrassed," Johnson testified.

The jury ordered Carmona to pay $25,000 in punitive damages and STRIVE to pay $5,000.

Outside court after her victory, Johnson said she was "very happy" and rejected Carmona's claims from the witness stand Tuesday that the verdict made him realize he needs to "take stock" of how he communicates with people he is trying to help.

"I come from a different time," Carmona said hesitantly, wiping his eyes repeatedly with a cloth.

"So now, now you're sorry?" Johnson said outside court, saying she doubted his sincerity and noting Carmona had refused to apologize to her in court last week. She said he should have been sorry on March 14, 2012, "the day when he told me the N-word eight times."

Her lawyer, Marjorie M. Sharpe, said she hoped the case sent a strong message to those who "have tried to take the sting out of the N-word. ... It's the most offensive word in the English language."

Carmona left the courthouse without immediately commenting, as did all eight jurors.

In a statement, STRIVE said it was disappointed but was exploring its options, including an appeal and looking forward to the "judicial process taking its entire course."

It also cited Johnson as a "prime example of the second chances that STRIVE provides to both its participants and nonparticipants alike."

  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer