While academics and commentators line up to denounce the plan of New South publishers to edit out the n-word from Huckleberry Finn, a federal jury is set to decide whether there is a different standard for a white person as opposed to a black person in using the n-word in the work place. Former Fox29 reporter-anchor Tom Burlington has sued his former station alleging that he was the victim of racial discrimination and a hostile work environment over the use of the n-word.
U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick has decided that a jury should decide the question of whether Burlington was improperly terminated after he used the “n” word during a June 2007 staff meeting. The staff members were discussing reporter Robin Taylor’s story about the symbolic burial of the word by the Philadelphia Youth Council of the NAACP. He was fired in 2004 for using the word and has been unable to get another job in the media. He says that two other employees who are black used the word without any action being taken against them.
In the meeting, Taylor noted that participants at the burial had said the full word “at least a hundred times or more.” Burlington then asked “Does this mean we can finally say the word n-?”
Nicole Wolfe, a producer and anAfrican American, objected and exclaimed “I can’t believe you just said that!”
The case puts the double standard issue directly to a jury. There has long been a sharp dichotomy between whites and blacks on the usage of the word which appears often in films, comedy acts, and song.
Surrick held that a jury would have to decide whether Burlington was a “victim of political correctness run amok” or whether he was appropriately terminated for his own poor judgment. Burlington, however, did not want one thing to be revealed to the jury. He unsuccessfully sought to exclude his alleged statement to his former coanchor Joyce Evans that someone had referred to her as a “n- bitch.” He insists that he was making a point in the inappropriate use of the word. However, that is a fact that can be argued to the jury.
I presume that the defense will try to move the focus of the trial away from the double standard and argue that Burlington used the word as part of a generally racially insensitive history. I doubt the defense would want a straight vote on the double standard issue, which is unlikely to appeal to many jurors.
Burlington is now working in real estate.
Teachers often face this question in dealing with texts that use the word. This issue came up last year in Colorado when high school teacher Tim Thornton was fired for using the word in discussing a literary work. The class at Mullen High School was discussing the short story “Poison,” by Roald Dahl and a racially loaded discussion between characters. While a black was put in the place of the n-word, Thornton used the word and then made a joking reference to the Ku Klux Klan. He was fired.
In another case, the teacher used the word in a non-textual reference. Towson University adjunct professor Allen Zaruba (who noted that his stepfather is African-American) was teaching a visual concepts class and referred to himself as “a nigger on the corporate plantation.” He was also fired.
In another case, Waltham principal Peter Silverman was fired from Plympton Elementary School after he quoted John Lennon’s song “Woman is the Nigger.” Silverman insists that he used the quote to show that he was sympathetic with the plight of the teachers and that no students were present.
This cases make the Burlington case particularly interesting and potentially important. We will be following the case closely, but what do you think?
Kudos: Allison K.