Category: Race

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Fourth Circuit Weighs In On Racist Talk In The Workplace

Full Court Press has a good post on a recent Fourth Circuit decision, Jordan v. Alternative Resources Corp., in which a divided panel upheld the dismissal of a Title VII race discrimination suit. In particular, the plaintiff argued that he had been fired in retaliation for making a complaint to management about what he perceived as a racially hostile working environment. The post at Full Court Press offers many more details, but the core of the court’s holding was that the employee was “unreasonable” in believing that his co-worker’s comments created a hostile working environment.

What were these comments that no reasonable African-American man could possibly have seen creating a hostile work environment? While watching a news account of the arrest of the DC snipers, his co-worker exclaimed: “they should put those two black monkeys in a cage with black apes and let the apes fuck them.” That according to the dissent. The majority redacted the text a bit, so that the gentlememan only suggested that the apes “f–k” them. In the aftermath of this incident, the plaintiff was told by colleagues that this offending speaker had used similar language in the past.

Two thoughts. First, it was interesting to see the majority turn what was clearly family-unfriendly language into, well, family-barely-friendly text. Apparently, for the majority, the “fuck” aspect of this comment was most offensive. Calling African-Americans monkeys – and thereby calling upon a rich history of bigotry – was merely being accurate. (No doubt some will argue that the “fuck” was irrelevant to the claim here, since it was grounded on the monkey image. But that is clearly debatable, if only because the term amplified the speakers intensity of hate.) Judge King’s dissent was very aggressive in terms of word choice. FIrst, he restated the facts, including the word “fuck.” Then, when citing contrary authority, he explicitly noted in parentheticals that those cases involved the use of the term “nigger.” We all know that the mere act of uttering this word is powerful and controversial. His point, presumably, was that any assessment of whether such abusive language could be reasonably viewed as creating a hostile environment cannot occur when the majority is perfuming these statements. Racist language must be addressed squarely, because the mere softening of terminology in a recitation of facts serves to retell a false narrative, one that the plaintiff never experienced. (In some ways, the panel’s decision to obscure the actual language – characterizing it rather than providing a precise image – brings to mind Eugene Volokh’s argument that you can’t discuss the cartoons spoofing Mohammed without seeing the precise images that are under discussion.)

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7

Racial Separation

Yesterday’s NY Times included an article about separate drunk driving courts in Phoenix for Spanish-speakers and Native Americans. I wasn’t particularly troubled about having special courts for Spanish speakers. As a practical matter, such courts will operate more quickly and efficiently because they will not need translators. At the same time, it seems likely that the proceedings will be, and will be perceived by to be, fairer. This is because Spanish speakers will presumably understand much more of what is occurring in the courtroom. (For example, defendants may benefit from understanding the proceedings in other cases, as well as from understanding the informal courtroom patter that would otherwise go untranslated.)

Creating special courts for Native Americans is different. On one hand, specialty courts are neither new nor troubling. As I’ve written, drug courts and mental health courts provide special benefits because the feature judges with specialized knowledge, as well as a more developed support staff trained to address particularly challenging personal problems. There are reasons to believe such courts may reduce recidivism because their sentences are more effective. But why couldn’t a specialized drunk-driving court provide that sort of individualized treatment plan for both Native Americans and non-Native Americans?

It seems to me that the only basis for having a separate race-based tribunal is if the use of a general tribunal itself prevents effective treatment. Thus we should ask whether there is something about having a special venue that changes the experience for the defendants. That is, do many Native Americans speak more openly in the Native American court? Do they acknowledge their problems more easily there? Do they follow court orders more frequently in such courts? Do lawyers advocate more aggressively in these courts? Even if the answers are yes, I’m not at all sure that I’d support these race-based courts. There are broad social costs to creating race-segregated courts; it seems far wiser to build a single inclusive tribunal.

On a separate note, I’ve been thinking a bit about recent happenings at NYU Law. As some others have noted, students at my alma mater are petitioning the Dean for creation of a “minority lounge.” The space would be open to all members of the community but according to one student, “it should be understood that this is a place where students of color can go to feel comfortable, to talk without hesitation, to be surrounded by those that understand or are more open to understanding their experience in law school.”

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