Jury awards damages for use of N-word by black manager to black worker

Brandi Johnson, left, and her lawyer, Marjorie M. Sharpe, leave federal court in New York 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.
(Larry Neumeister / Associated Press)

If a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, would hate language, even if designed to be tough love, be just as hurtful?

As far as a federal jury in New York is concerned, the N-word -- even when uttered by a black person and aimed at another black person -- is just as demeaning.


The eight-person federal jury on Tuesday awarded $30,000 in punitive damages, in addition to $250,000 in compensatory damages awarded last week, to Brandi Johnson, 38, a worker at STRIVE, an East Harlem employment agency.

Johnson argued she was offended and abused by her manager, Rob Carmona, who repeatedly described her with the N-word, considered an unacceptable racial slur but sometimes used among blacks without the aura of disrespect.

“I was offended. I was hurt. I felt degraded. I felt disrespected. I was embarrassed,” Johnson testified, according to the Associated Press report from the courtroom.

Carmona, who founded the agency, argued that he was expressing love. In his testimony, Carmona said he used it with Johnson to convey that she was “too emotional, wrapped up in her, at least the negative aspects of human nature.”

The N-word has “multiple contexts” in the black and Latino communities, sometimes indicating anger, sometimes love, he said, and that it can be used to mean “my boy, I love him, or whatever.”

Asked if he meant to indicate love when he used the word with Johnson, he responded: “Yes, I did,” according to media reports.

Johnson’s 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.”

She told jurors that despite the alternative definitions, using the word “is no different than calling a Hispanic by the worst possible word you can call a Hispanic, calling a homosexual male the worst possible word that you can call a homosexual male.”

STRIVE has been praised for helping people with troubled backgrounds get into the workforce. Its employment model, which was described in a CBS’ “60 Minutes” piece as “part boot camp, part group therapy,” claims to have helped nearly 50,000 people find work since 1984.

Sharpe told jurors that STRIVE’s tough-love program cannot excuse Carmona’s behavior.

If calling someone the N-word “and subjecting them to a hostile work environment is part of STRIVE’s tough love, then STRIVE needs to be reminded that this type of behavior is illegal and cannot be tolerated,” she said.


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