Recent Court Reversal Raises Questions about Discriminatory Language
A recent New York Times article discusses a reversal of a court decision that may have significance for police officers: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/27/us/tyson-discrimination-verdict-restored-by-appeals-court.html.
In September 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Alabama had decided in favor of a Tyson manager who used the word “boy” to refer to male employees he was supervising. “Boy, you better get going” and “Hey, boy” were two examples cited as evidence. At that time the court ruled that the word “boy” was used in a “conversational” sense, and no discrimination was intended. The case was dismissed.
On December 16 of this year, however, the court reversed its decision, awarding about $365,000 in damages to black employee John Hithon. U.W. Clemon, Alabama’s first black federal judge, noted, “The court now understands the unwillingness of black men to go back to being called ‘boy.’”
At first glance a legal decision about practices in a private business might seem to have little significance for law enforcement. But two elements in the case make it worthy of our notice.
First, the case reminds us that language choices—even everyday words, when used in a questionable context—can have serious consequences. Second, the case underlines a significant change in the way society views people in authority: The old system of automatically protecting those in power has vanished. In bygone days, a manager or supervisor could expect to get away with just about anything, especially if he was a white male supervising black workers. Those days are gone—and that change is affecting law enforcement.
News stories like this one should remind all of us about the importance of thoughtful, responsible word choices. It can be tempting to use street talk and slang on the job, especially when we’re struggling to maintain control of a difficult situation. “Show ‘em you’re as tough as they are” is a philosophy I’ve heard more than once from officers who proudly use inflammatory language at work. “I didn’t mean anything by it” is another excuse I’ve heard several times when officers were questioned about their word choices.
Be warned: That kind of thinking may not exonerate you in a disciplinary hearing or court case. That’s the lesson a plant manager in Alabama learned earlier this month, and it might be a useful reminder to us as well.