Barrett Opinion: Using The N-Word At Work Doesn’t Make A Workplace “Hostile”
On the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel last year that being called the n-word at work does not in itself make for a “hostile” work environment.
The Associated Press reported that the decision “upheld the dismissal of a workplace discrimination lawsuit by Terry Smith, a Black Illinois transportation employee who sued after he was fired.”
Among Smith’s claims was that his supervisor Lloyd Colbert had called him the racial slur.
“The n-word is an egregious racial epithet,” Barrett wrote in Smith v. Illinois Department of Transportation. “That said, Smith can’t win simply by proving that the word was uttered. He must also demonstrate that Colbert’s use of this word altered the conditions of his employment and created a hostile or abusive working environment.”
Barrett went on to say that Smith “introduced no evidence that Colbert’s use of the n-word changed his subjective experience of the workplace. To be sure, Smith testified that his time at the Department caused him psychological distress. But that was for reasons that predated his run-in with Colbert and had nothing to do with his race. His tenure at the Department was rocky from the outset because of his poor track record.”
The AP noted that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh took the opposite position in 2013, when he served as a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C.
Kavanaugh wrote at the time:
“But, in my view, being called the n-word by a supervisor ... suffices by itself to establish a racially hostile work environment. That epithet has been labeled, variously, a term that ‘sums up . . . all the bitter years of insult and struggle in America,’ ‘pure anathema to African-Americans,’ and ’probably the most offensive word in English.”