MANHATTAN (PIX11) -- When, if ever, is it acceptable for somebody to use the N-word against someone, even if the person using the expletive is a person of color himself? That’s the question a jury was asked to rule on in federal court in Manhattan. A double verdict that came down Tuesday afternoon and last week set a strong precedent against the use of the word, and for punishing its users.
At the heart of the civil case was a recording made by an employee of the jobs and empowerment organization STRIVE East Harlem. In an approximately four minute recording made in March 2012 by Brandi Johnson, 38, on her iPhone, her boss used the N-word no fewer than eight times to describe her and a fellow employee.
“I was bothered, disrespected, offended, hurt,” Brandi Johnson said about the language to which she was subjected.
“You’re <expletive>s,” Johnson’s boss says to her in the recording’s clear audio. The irony is that the boss she recorded during a meeting is Rob Carmona, 61, the founder and CEO of STRIVE. Carmona is of African and Puerto Rican heritage.
“I was bothered, disrespected, offended, hurt” Johnson said about the language to which she was subjected. ”I’m the mother of two kids, and I can’t imagine anyone saying that to my kid.”
Her supervisor, Carmona, has been featured on 60 Minutes, CNN, and in other national and local media for his organization’s job creation and placement programs. In 2011, President Obama invited Carmona to participate in the administration’s Jobs Summit and Fatherhood Initiative.
During trial last week, Carmona told a jury that he’d used the racist expletive with Johnson as a form of motivation and assistance. It was consistent, Carmona has said, with his own biography. He grew up in a Harlem housing project, and overcame an addiction to heroin in part through tough, motivational talk. He went on to earn a master’s degree at Columbia University, and founded the million-dollar jobs program out of a basement office of a housing project nearly 40 years ago.
“I’m trying to help,” Rob Carmona, shown in a handout photo, said on the witness stand Tuesday in justifying his use of the N-word. “I’m trying… to get them to understand what I’m trying to do is help.”
“I’m trying to help,” Carmona said on the witness stand Tuesday, wiping away tears with a handkerchief. ”I’m trying… to get them to understand what I’m trying to do is help.”
But the jury of eight people, only one of whom was African American, saw things quite differently. They ruled at the end of last week that Carmona had to pay his employee $250,000 in compensatory damages for his use of the racist expletive with her.
And on Tuesday, the lawyer for victim Brandi Johnson asked the jury to award punitive damages as well. Compensatory damages are often paid by a corporation’s insurance company. Punitive damages, much more often than not, are paid out of the defendant’s pocket.
“Both my client and I… feel it sends a message,” said Marjorie M. Sharpe, Johnson’s attorney. She said that punitive damages clearly showed that the use of the word is never acceptable, “no matter who the speaker is.”
“Both my client and I… feel it sends a message,” said Marjorie M. Sharpe, Johnson’s attorney, about the jury’s decision.
Similarly, Johnson, the recipient of the racist rant, said, “Hopefully, this sets an example that this won’t be tolerated, no matter what your race is.”
They were both responding to the jury’s second verdict, which came down just before 4 P.M. Tuesday. The jury ruled that Carmona would have to pay $25,000 to Johnson from his personal wealth, and that STRIVE would have to pay an additional $5,000.
Neither Carmona nor his attorneys would make any comment in the wake of the jury’s decisions. Johnson and her lawyers, though, were very vocal. They said they wanted to make very clear that the verdicts were about more than just discrimination and money. Sharpe, Johnson’s attorney, called the case a precedent.
“In many respects, people tried to take away the sting [of the N-word],” she said outside the courthouse minutes after the jury had spoken. She said that the twin verdicts definitively said “that can’t happen.”
“<Expletive> is the most offensive word in the English language,” said Sharpe.
For its part, STRIVE said, through its senior manager, Philip Weinberg, in his testimony in court Tuesday, that it would begin anti-discrimination and anti-sexual harassment training for its staff.