The U.S. Supreme Court has recently held that racial discrimination may be evidenced by use of the term ‘boy’, regardless of whether a racial classification (such as ‘black’ or ‘white’) has been made.

The decision is one of the first with new Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

Two African-American superintendants at Tyson Foods, Anthony Ash and John Hithon, sought to be promoted to two open shift manager positions. Ash had 15 years experience with Tyson Foods and Hithon had 13 years. Two white males were eventually selected for those positions instead. One of these white men had less than two years experience.

Ash and Hithon sued Tyson, alleging that they had been discriminated against on account of their race.

The Court found that there was evidence that a Tyson plant manager, who had made the decision not to hire Ash and Hithon, had referred to both Ash and Hithon on several occasions as “boy”.

Ash and Hithon’s attorney argued that the term “boy” was offensive, was considered a slur by other courts, and had its origins in the slave era.

The lawyers for Tyson Foods said that evidence showed the manager “was rude and curt to all employees – white and black – but had never used racial epithets.”

The Court unanimously decided that even though the use of the word “boy” in and of itself did not always imply racial discrimination, there was a possibility that it could. According to the court, the meaning of the word depended on several factors, such as context, inflection, tone of voice, local custom, and historical usage.

The case has returned to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court in Atlanta for the court to reconsider the case.

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