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What’s with all the cooking references?  Yesterday, the Supreme Court listened to oral argument in a case involving a question of power: Does a supervisor, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, have to be someone who has ultimate power over an employee — the power to hire, fire, demote, promote, or discipline?  Or is a supervisor someone with the power to tell another employee what to do?

This case involves the hostile work environment that Maetta Vance endured as a person who told her what to do issued racial epithets and uttered veiled threats.  These are very serious allegations.  Yet three of the Supreme Court Justices seemed to have cooking, sex, and power — quid pro quo — on their minds, when this is a case about something different: a hostile work environment.

If you don’t date me, Chief Justice Roberts asked, can I make you “listen to music, all day long, that the listener found unpleasant”?  Or, as Roberts said, “you’re going to be cutting the celery rather than, you know, baking the bread” if you don’t date me?  What is he talking about?  Is she supposed to cut celery, bake bread, or, as Alito chimed in, cut onions as she listens to the person who tells her what to do throws racial slurs at her?

This important civil-rights case about power isn’t “Listen to my racial slurs, or I will make you chop onions.”  Vance had to endure racial epithets while being made to chop onions.  The employee in charge of telling her what to do had the capacity to exploit this person’s vulnerability, and she did so. “Professors don’t have the ability to fire secretaries,” explained Justice Elena Kagan, “but professors do have the ability to make secretarial lives living hells.”  It’s simple.  These professors have the power to tell the secretaries what to do.

A supervisor is someone who dictates work conditions.  A hostile workplace is about who has the capacity to determine these conditions.  The Justices’ trivial cooking references were less significant than what could be a purposeful misunderstanding of the difference between sexual harassment that stems from a quid pro quo situation — an exchange — and harassment that is not meant to extract a concession.  And a supervisor is simply the person who has the power to make another person’s work environment hostile.

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