Thursday, August 6, 2009

Know when to fish, know when to cut bait

Justin Barrett, the Boston police officer who was fired for calling Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. a “banana-eating jungle monkey,” has filed a lawsuit against the Boston police department, police commissioner, and mayor. Defending himself on Larry King Live last week, Barrett said that he is not a racist:

I would like to take this opportunity to offer fellow police officers, soldiers and citizens my sincerest apology over the controversial e-mail I authored. I am not a racist. I did not intend any racial bigotry, harm or prejudice in my words. I sincerely apologize that these words have been received as such. I truly apologize to all.

Let me put this as simply as possible – when you send an e-mail calling an African American a “jungle monkey” not once, not twice, but four different times, whether you are or are not a racist is irrelevant. All that matters is that everyone is going to perceive you as a racist.

In employment cases, perception is 90% of the battle. For example, let’s suppose the “jungle monkey” to whom Mr. Barrett referred was not Professor Gates, but was a subordinate Mr. Barrett had recently terminated. It’s possible he could convince a jury that racial animus did not motivate his decision, although highly unlikely. If your explanation as to why an employee was fired cannot pass the smell test, the case is one that should be quickly settled instead of expensively litigated.

[Hat tip: Overlawyered]

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