036: No Rhyme or Reason

Stella Case No. 036, Originally Published: 12 February 2003

When you were a child, did you use a rhyme to choose other kids for your team? It might have been “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe; catch a tiger by the toe…”. If you’re less than 50 years old, you might be surprised to hear that the rhyme’s mid-19th century roots are quite racist; that “tiger” line used to be commonly recited as “catch a nigger by the toe.”

Southwest Airlines flight attendant Jennifer Cundiff, 22 at the time, was pretty surprised to find out — she had never heard the racist version. She had picked up a twist on the rhyme from other flight attendants and, on a crowded 2001 flight, got on the intercom to tell boarding passengers, “Eenie, meenie, minie, moe; pick a seat, we gotta go.”

Two of those passengers were sisters Louise Sawyer, 46, and Grace Fuller, 48, both of whom are black. They sued Southwest, claiming they were discriminated against and suffered physical and emotional distress, and demanded unspecified actual and punitive damages, arguing that the young flight attendant used a known racist rhyme to specifically demean them.

U.S. District Court Judge Kathryn H. Vratil of Kansas City, Kan., dismissed the distress claims, but ruled that the rest of the case can proceed to trial. “The court agrees with plaintiffs that because of its history, the phrase ‘eenie, meenie, minie, moe’ could reasonably be viewed as objectively racist and offensive,” she wrote. “The jury, however, must decide whether Cundiff’s remark was racist, or simply a benign and innocent attempt at humor,” as well as find that the women were denied “the same enjoyment that others experienced on that flight.”

Thanks to the passage of time, millions of people had never heard the “n-word” version of the rhyme, only the innocent one. By insisting that a 22-year-old must have been intentionally racist when any rational observer sees no racism only helps perpetuate the hurtful version of the rhyme. In their greed, Sawyer and Fuller have given a long-dead bit of racism new life. Who, then, are the racists here?


  • “Rhyme at Center of Lawsuit Against Southwest Airlines,” Kansas City Star, 10 February 2003

Case Status

After a two-day trial — and just one hour of deliberation — the jury ruled the two sisters did not suffer discrimination. After the ruling the women claimed they were discriminated against again — by the jury. “If we had jurors of our peers, then we would have won the case today,” claims plaintiff Grace Fuller, who said the flight attendant’s remark caused her to have a seizure, leaving her bed-ridden for three days. The case took about three years from incident to dismissal.

Update Source: “Jury Decides Rhyme Not Malicious,” Associated Press, 22 January 2004

My 2020 Thoughts on the Case

Is the U.S. racist? Absolutely: it’s deeply ingrained. Was the young white flight attendant targeting these women to specifically demean them? Not that objective observers could see. It comes down to “pick your battles,” and I think the sisters chose poorly — and lashing out at the jury was an unneeded insult.

Letters and Comments

As subscriptions to TSA streamed in back in the day, I glanced over them to see what people have put in the box about where they heard about the newsletter. Sometimes there are very weird things there, but I was still pretty perplexed by one “whereheard” that kept popping up again and again — one weird thing is just weird; multiple instances from all over the country is a trend.

Anyway, what I saw was: “18th awards show on TV”. Hm? OK, weird. Then “TV”, “your show”, “18th annual awards”, “the stella awards television program.”

Gee: had I been on TV lately without knowing? Finally one mentioned what station they all saw this on: WGN (a cable “superstation”), so I went to their web site to see what was on that night. It was the “18th Annual Stellar Gospel Music Awards”.

OK, so you’re watching Gospel Music Awards on TV, go to a web site that sounds kinda like “Stellar” …and find a newsletter about stupid lawsuits. What rational person then says, “This MUST be the same thing!” and subscribes?! I even had one gal call on the phone asking if she could order a video of the show. (No!)

If you wonder how such stupid lawsuits can get through the court system, consider this story. These people are in jury pools too.

The asbestos cases brought a tremendous response.

Michael in the U.K.: “Thanks for ending your article on asbestos the way you did. My father died of asbestosis due to exposure in the navy and working in the local car factory. Those 80% of free-loaders should be ashamed.”

Jeff in Ohio: “What a tremendous issue! Thought provoking and educational! I have an idea that might help reduce these frivolous asbestos lawsuits: If you know of one of these free screenings in your area, simply print up issue #20, or the [source article] and simply distribute them to the people standing in line. When confronted with the reality that these victims are taking money away from people who are truly ill, it is my sincere hope that many of them will make the right decision and abandon their plans of hitting the lottery.”

Nice thought, Jeff, but it’s more likely the lawyers will call the police and have you hauled away as a trespasser!

Several people wrote to say that Congress is working on a law to stop the asbestos suits, but the effort is way too little and WAY too late. The whackamole lawyers will just pop up elsewhere, such as (say) filing thousands of suits against fast food restaurants. Could that happen? It already has started. Lawyers are also looking to sue auto manufacturers because SUVs don’t drive like cars (they weren’t meant to), or because they cause more damage when they get into crashes with little cars (like pickups — or cement trucks — always have?) No, the issue isn’t asbestos; such hordes of frivolous lawsuits indicate a social problem that needs to be addressed at its core.

Amanda in, I think, California: “I read this issue with much interest. My uncle died from asbestos-related causes last July. All his life he worked installing air ducts in buildings, insulated by asbestos. When he died he had only half a lung. Thank you for bringing this to everyone and showing just how bad [suits by healthy people] affect the people who have medical bills to pay and need the money because they can’t work, or leave behind a family that needs to be provided for. Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

David in Arkansas: “Taking a well-publicized problem like the effects of asbestos exposure and submitting an anti-plaintiff essay takes guts (and probably asbestos underwear). Keep up the good work. Where do I send my donations to keep you in business?”

I don’t want donations for this work, but you can support my efforts by buying books filled with my work, or other items. My shopping cart is here.

Meanwhile Tom, apparently in Washington, complained: “You know, as a lawyer, I have enjoyed your good-natured poking of fun at the legal system. Particularly, I liked your ability to understand what the system was trying (albeit imperfectly) to do. But when you start extolling asbestos as an important and necessary product that is part of our history, you have lost it!!!! This product isn’t the subject of numerous lawsuits because it is a STELLA contender.— it has killed thousands of people!!! If you think this is analogous to spilling hot coffee in your lap, you’ve jumped the tracks! Hand in your card, you’re a bunch of idiots instead of a voice of reason.”

Ignoring how one guy might be a “bunch of idiots,” I asked Tom how far his logic goes. Automobiles, for instance, have killed hundreds of thousands of people from collisions alone (forget secondary issues like pollution). That makes them “unimportant” and “unnecessary” and therefore worthy of mass lawsuits?

Tom had no response whatever. There’s a reason asbestos has been in use since ancient times: it’s useful! Over its history I’ll bet it has saved far more lives (e.g., protecting people from fire) than it has taken. Does that make it “safe”? Depends on your point of view. But like many tools and substances, it has to be used correctly.

Still, the safety, or lack of safety, of asbestos is not the issue! As I made clear, many people have indeed been terribly harmed by asbestos, sometimes due to the extreme negligence of their employers. Such people deserve compensation. Yet because as many as 80 percent of the people who are suing have absolutely no medical problems, they are not only clogging up the system to the detriment of the people who do have problems, they are also helping to bankrupt the responsible companies, meaning there’s nothing left for those who were truly harmed. I have no doubt that my readers (and any rational, thinking person) can understand that without being told. So when an attorney comes unglued and starts in with ad hominem attacks and name-calling, it’s rather obvious what’s up: he’s not part of the solution, he’s part of the problem.

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13 Comments on “036: No Rhyme or Reason

  1. Apparently those sisters have never flown on Southwest until that 2001 flight. I have flown Southwest a lot since about 2009 or so and what the flight attendant said makes sense that she said it. The reason? Southwest does what they call “open seating” — which means you do not get a seat assignment. Instead, you get a boarding position; once you get on to the plane, you are to find an open seat, stow your bags, and sit down.

    While this is probably the quickest way to load a plane of passengers, it sometimes means people are lined up in the aisle while someone gets their stuff stowed and sit down. I believe flight attendants on SW are told to get people seated as fast as possible, and they are allowed to use humor, you end up with cute sayings like what the flight attendant said. Heck, even their pre-flight announcements (this is how to fasten your seat belt, etc.) and their announcements after we land can be funny. And usually are.

    So the flight attendant was not singling out those sisters, she was talking to everyone clogging up the aisle.

    On a completely separate topic — asbestos — and wanted to add my story and the usefulness of asbestos. In model rocketry, you launch your rockets from a launch pad (a portable launch pad is usually about 6 or 8 inches in diameter and a rod sticks up about 18 to 24 inches (so the rocket goes straight up) and has “feet” so it is stable. The launch pad also needs away to diffuse the fire from the rocket engines so the grass and whatnot on the ground does not catch fire. Anyway, when I was into model rockets as a kid, my stepfather made a launch pad out of some metal hangers, a can lid, and a piece of asbestos. The asbestos piece was circular and rested on the can lid — it was great at keeping the fire from the engine from torching the grass. And neither of us ended up with health issues by using the asbestos.

  2. What poor, dear little snowflakes those claimants were! Hearing a nursery rhyme that didn’t even include the “offending” line (and yes, I am old enough to know the “n*” version — we had that version in the UK too) caused one of them to have a seizure? Truly pathetic.

  3. What? Someone gets their butt hurt and decides to sue? What a shocker. Between This is True and Stella (Stellar?ha) Awards, I’ve been shaking my head so much, I have whiplash. Hey, do ya think I have grounds for a suit against you? Only kidding. Keep up the good work Randy.

  4. All scars have adhesions, and the emotional ones run as deep to a person’s core as the physical ones often do. The sisters were reacting, yes — but many folk can’t get past such initial reactions from previous pain to get objective. That’s why we have a legal system in place, to do it for them, but it doesn’t automatically elicit an acceptance of a result that goes against their pain (added to that in this case, the desire for gain) any easier.

  5. I am old enough to remember when the racist version was the only version I knew. There are many, many other things we said that were “normal” at the time and were not at all racist based on the social norms of the day. But, today are, rightfully so, horrifying. I pray my kids never learn of things I have said in the past.

    I grew up in a time when wearing a white sheet qualified you as racist. If you did not wear a white sheet, you were not racist. Language was not part of the equation.

    Obviously language is a big part of the equation now and should have been all along. Change is good.

    That said, the sisters did take it too far. Language, like many actions, requires context and they forgot to include context in their assessment of the young flight attendant.

    I’ll accept “normal” in the sense of “common,” because it was, but even back then it was still racist, and objectively horrifying. -rc

    • Common is a far better word to describe what we did. It is unfortunate that many folks my age (and their children) still think the white sheet is the only sign of racism.

      Indeed so. -rc

  6. I’m 69 … today is the first day I ever heard that the rhyme had racist origins.

    I was raised in Ohio, so that might have caused my ignorance. If I’d been raised in the South, perhaps I’d have learned it.

    • I grew up in the west and knew the bad version from the beginning. You were lucky that the racism did not invade your neighborhood and social circle.

    • I’m 63 and heard both versions, but not since about the mid-60’s, and even then saying it in the hearing of an adult was risking a spanking. I did not hear the “N” word often, and the most I often heard it used was the brief period of time I had a Black room-mate in college. In many discussions, he and his friends all agreed that it was a horrible term if used by a white person, but was almost a term of affection when used by one Black to another. Then again, they also thought “ho” was also a friendly term, again, only if used by one Black to another. I disagreed, thinking that words should be good or bad, and the user shouldn’t have too much change in the words.

      I should maybe mention that I grew up in a very white-bread town in Illinois, with perhaps one percent Black, before going to a big university. When I was about 13 I was yelled at from a passing car and called a “honkey”. I had to ask someone what it meant, and when someone told a racist joke a few years later I didn’t get it, because I didn’t know most of the derogatory terms. My parents didn’t allow that kind of language in our house.

  7. I was a kid at sleepover summer camp when I was about 8 y.o. in 1951. Part of our arts & crafts activity was using asbestos fibres and mixing it with water and using it as a modelling clay. We all made ashtrays, of course. Really, really, ugly ashtrays. It was not a very good modelling material.

    Fast forward to about 1954, we had an oil burner furnace and had an oil tank in the basement to store the oil. This tank had sprung a leak and there was a little trickle of oil running across the basement floor and into the drain. My parents called the oil company to have them do something with the oil leak; they repaired or replaced the tank and spread asbestos fibres over the oil on the floor to absorb it.

    I recognized (or was told) that it was asbestos and remembering that I had used it at camp to model with, I gathered up the loose fibres and made more modelling compound out of it.

    Fast forward a bunch of years and here I am today at 77 y.o. and my lungs are okay, advanced age notwithstanding. And yes I’ve been tested a couple of times with negative results.

    I WAS REALLY LUCKY! I cannot conceive of joining any class action to take advantage of other people’s misery. I’m a winner since I never had any asbestos-related problems and didn’t HAVE to join any suit. My heart goes out to those who did indeed suffer from asbestos.

  8. As a young child in the early 60s, I learned the “tiger” version. I didn’t know about the n-word version until my well-meaning and socially quite small-l liberal parents told me, “Never, ever use the version that goes…” Even if I had known the original version, I wouldn’t have used that word, one of the few that was absolutely forbidden in our home.

    I’m reminded of a high school production of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” about 12-15 years ago, directed by one of my friends. The kids didn’t know that Christie originally called it “Ten Little…” and changed the novel’s title (and later, the play’s title) at her publisher’s request. The local NAACP made a huge hullabaloo about a title that had been changed voluntarily over 60 years before, demanding that the production be cancelled and (here it comes) a “donation” be made to them. Remarkably, neither the director, the school, nor the school board caved in, and the production drew school-record crowds. Context and history mean a lot.

    Last note–The play is no longer produced as “Ten Little Indians”. The long-time alternate title, “And Then There Were None”, hasn’t yet been declared racist, sexist, or any other “-ist”, “mis-“, or “-phobic”. And it’s still Ms. Christie’s best play.


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