University of Southern California

Through the Looking Glass: Racial Jokes, Social Context, and the Reasonable Person in Hostile Work Environment Analysis

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Note by Melissa K. Hughes
From Volume 76, Number 6 (September, 2003)

Communicating ethnic animosity through humor has long been an American tradition. As early as the seventeenth century, Americans have utilized racial jokes to ridicule the culture, dialect, dress, and traditions of each new wave of immigrants. Images of “little black Sambo,” “the drunken Irishman,” and “the stupid Pole” have helped to define which ethnic groups are accepted and which remain on the fringe of society. Although racial jokes convey a wide variety of messages ranging from friendly teasing to flagrant racism, when channeling racism and hostility they comprise one of the greatest weapons in the “repertory of the human mind.” Furthermore, while many dismiss jokes as a nonserious form of communication, racial jokes historically have played an important role in the development of American race relations.

In the decades following the civil rights movement, minority groups successfully applied political and social pressure to persuade Americans to oust racial jokes from the public sphere. Joseph Boskin, a leading scholar on ethnic humor, contends that despite the invention of politically sensitive speech, the popularity of racial jokes in the closing decades of the twentieth century skyrocketed nationwide. Ida L. Castro, the Chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) stated, “[t]he Commission is seeing a disturbing national trend of increased racial harassment and retaliation at workplaces across the country. This harassment at work sites includes egregious behavior which is reminiscent of the days of the civil rights movement.” This simultaneous resurgence of racial jokes and harassment reveals that discrimination remains a pressing social and legal issue.

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