Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ricci v. DeStefano

This appeared as the weekend op-ed in the Times-Record.

At the end of its term on June 29, the Supreme Court decided the lawsuit, Ricci v. DeStefano 5-4 in favor of the 17 white and one Hispanic firefighter who claimed they were denied promotion on account of their race by the city of New Haven, Conn.

The firefighters had all passed the test for promotions. City of New Haven officials threw out the test results and promoted no one, because no African-American firefighter and few Hispanics had passed the exam.

City officials said they feared a lawsuit. They got one anyway. The firefighters who sued claimed they were denied the promotions because of their race, that in fact it was they who suffered discrimination.

The Supreme Courts decision reverses a previous decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals panel, on which Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor sits. This marks her sixth reversal in eight cases that have gone before the Supreme Court.

Just because this case has been decided doesn't mean the issue is going away anytime soon.

On one side of this issue are those who believe society owes everyone only a fair chance and a level playing field to succeed - or fail, by their own efforts and help freely given.

On the other side are those who claim that unequal results are proof positive the playing field is not fair. The odd thing is that these are the people most likely to trumpet the value of “diversity” in society, education and the workplace. Evidently we will never have true diversity until every group is exactly the same in all respects except ancestry.

That individuals differ in abilities and aptitudes, is no secret. That groups also differ... is a subject that bringing up can end your career in certain fields.

In America and around the world, certain groups tend to be disproportionately represented in certain professions. Sometimes because of early colonization of the profession by group members who recruit friends and relatives as more jobs become available, sometimes for reasons that defy explanation.

In Germany, “Polish plumber” is now as much a stereotype as “Irish cop” or “Italian fireman” is in New York.

But these things are not set in stone, they change over time. New York cops say the new Irish cop, is a Puerto Rican. Japanese once dominated produce farming in southern California. Jews and Italians once ruled the sport of boxing.

There's been a lot of argument about whether the test is “fair,” though New Haven hired an outside contractor to design the test for that very reason.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in her dissent, “Relying heavily on written tests to select fire officers is a questionable practice."

Ginsberg cited a 1980 decision from St. Louis, (a fire officer's job) "involves complex behaviors, good interpersonal skills, the ability to make decisions under tremendous pressure and a host of other abilities -- none of which is easily measured by a written, multiple choice test."

However, New Haven previously ruled out recommendations from candidates' superiors, who might know a thing or two about those qualities, for fear of accusations of bias.

The New Haven Independent quoted an anonymous reader, identified as Hispanic, that the test favored "fire buffs"—guys who read fire-suppression manuals on their downtime and pay test-manual writers to come to New Haven to speak.

Oh heaven forbid, surely not! You mean the test favors guys who actually have an interest in how to put out fires?

What's next, favoring doctors who show an interest in curing the sick?

Two things show how seriously weird things get when government goes from insuring fairness of opportunity to equality of result. Ginsberg has never gone into a burning house to suppress a fire or rescue a victim, and has reportedly never hired an African-American law clerk over her entire career.

But I'm sure if she ever finds herself slung over the shoulder of a fireman exiting a burning building, she'll have penetrating questions about his ethnicity and people skills.


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