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Supreme Court Rules the Term “Boy” May Be Probative of Discriminatory Intent

Volume 5, Issue 6
May 23, 2006

The United States Supreme Court recently considered the case of Ash v.Tyson Foods, Inc., 126 S. Ct. 1195 (2006), in which two African-American superintendents alleged that they were not promoted to shift managers because of their race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The plaintiffs contended that Tyson's plant manager, who made the promotion decisions, had referred to each of them as "boy" on some occasions and that such conduct was evidence of his discriminatory intent.

The trial court found that the plaintiffs' evidence of discrimination was insufficient and vacated the jury's verdict in favor of the plaintiffs. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, in part, stating: "While the use of 'boy' when modified by a racial classification like 'black' or 'white' is evidence of discriminatory intent, the use of 'boy' alone is not evidence of discrimination." The Supreme Court disagreed and held that modifiers or qualifications are not necessary in all instances to render the term "boy" probative of bias. The Court explained: "Although it is true that the disputed word will not always be evidence of racial animus, it does not follow that the term, standing alone, is always benign." Instead, the Court noted that the speaker's meaning may depend on various factors including "context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom, and historical usage."

This ruling serves to remind employers that certain words and references which seem innocuous may be considered offensive and discriminatory especially when the term at issue is historically associated with racism. The Court's decision provides an excellent example for training supervisors and employees about the potential impact of their choice of words.

To read the case, visit http://www.supremecourtus.gov/opinions/05pdf/05-379.pdf.

Employer Report articles are for general information only; they are not intended and should not be construed to be legal advice. Reading or replying to such articles does not establish an attorney-client relationship. In addition, because the subject matters and applicable laws discussed in Employer Report articles are often in a state of change and not always applicable to every type of business entity or organization, readers should consult with counsel before making decisions based on the same.