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N.Y. case puts N-word use among blacks on trial

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013 6:10 p.m. CDT

NEW YORK – In a case that gave a legal airing to the debate over use of the N-word among blacks, a federal jury has rejected a black manager's argument that it was a term of love and endearment when he aimed it at black employee.

Jurors awarded $30,000 in punitive damages Tuesday after finding last week that the manager's four-minute rant was hostile and discriminatory, and awarding $250,000 in compensatory damages.

The case against Rob Carmona and the employment agency he founded, STRIVE East Harlem, hinged on the what some see as a complex double standard surrounding the word: It's a degrading slur when uttered by whites but can be used at times with impunity among blacks.

But 38-year-old Brandi Johnson told jurors that being black didn't make it any less hurtful when Carmona repeatedly targeted her with the slur during a March 2012 tirade about inappropriate workplace attire and unprofessional behavior.

Johnson, who taped the remarks after her complaints about his verbal abuse were disregarded, said she fled to the restroom and cried for 45 minutes.

"I was offended. I was hurt. I felt degraded. I felt disrespected. I was embarrassed," Johnson testified.

The jury ordered Carmona to pay $25,000 in punitive damages and STRIVE to pay $5,000.

Outside court after her victory, Johnson said she was "very happy" and rejected Carmona's claims from the witness stand Tuesday that the verdict made him realize he needs to "take stock" of how he communicates with people he is trying to help.

"I come from a different time," Carmona said hesitantly, wiping his eyes repeatedly with a cloth.

"So now, now you're sorry?" Johnson said outside court, saying she doubted his sincerity and noting Carmona had refused to apologize to her in court last week. She said he should have been sorry on March 14, 2012, "the day when he told me the N-word eight times."

Her 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."

Carmona left the courthouse without immediately commenting, as did all eight jurors.

In closing arguments, Sharpe had said Carmona's use of the word was intended to offend "and any evidence that defendants put forth to the contrary is simply ridiculous."

"When you use the word nigger to an African-American, no matter how many alternative definitions that you may try to substitute with the word nigger, that 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," Sharpe told jurors.

But Carmona's lawyers said the 61-year-old black man of Puerto Rican descent had a much different experience with the word. Raised by a single mother in a New York City public housing project, he became addicted to heroin in his teens and broke it with the help of drug counselors who employed tough love and tough language.

Carmona went on to earn a master's degree from Columbia University before co-founding STRIVE in the 1980s. Now, most of STRIVE's employees are black women, his attorney, Diane Krebs, told jurors in her opening statement.

"And Mr. Carmona is himself black, as you yourselves can see," Krebs said.

In his testimony, Carmona defended his use of the word, saying he used it with Johnson to convey that she was "too emotional, wrapped up in her, at least the negative aspects of human nature."

Then he explained that the word has "multiple contexts" in the black and Latino communities, sometimes indicating anger, sometimes love.

Carmona said he might put his arm around a longtime friend in the company of another and say: "This is my nigger for 30 years."

"That means my boy, I love him, or whatever," he said.

He was asked if he meant to indicate love when he called Johnson the word.

"Yes, I did," he responded.

The controversy is a blemish on STRIVE, which has been heralded 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.

"Well, if calling a person a nigger 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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