Our nation’s equality just doesn’t add up

Published 10:08 am Friday, July 3, 2009

A free democratic society should be color and race blind, so said Justice Scalia in affirming the decision that white firefighters were discriminated against when they were not promoted in New Haven.

The case is known as Ricci in recognition of one white firefighter who is dyslexic, yet studied hard enough to pass the promotion exam in second place.

In 2003, the city gave the validated promotion exam, 60 percent written and 40 percent oral to 118 firefighters. Twenty seven of the firefighters were black; none passed the test.

The ruling determined that the white firefighters who passed the test but were not promoted (along with one Hispanic who passed) were discriminated against for the color of their skin.

The city of New Haven decided not to promote anyone based upon the racial outcome of the test. And, to satisfy the requirements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the city sought to find a more racially neutral test. The Supreme Court has ruled that a promotion exam need not be concerned with the racial outcome of such tests, and that to do so may in itself be racially biased.

If this all sounds correct to you then that is not surprising, for if we live in a racially blind society then the ruling is good law.

The question is, do we really live in a racially blind society or in one willing to extend racial bigotry simply because it is tired of affirming fairness in hiring and promotions?

Well, consider the unintended consequences of Ricci. Among those consequences is the opposite effect of this week’s outcome. Should a community that is predominately African-American utilize a test that only blacks pass, that test is as valid as Ricci, since race is not relevant in qualifications.

Or, should the District of Columbia, which has a 97 percent African-American population, establish residency requirements for firefighters, effectively disqualifying all white candidates? That too would pass the Ricci test by the court.

In addition to the consequences implied by Ricci there are the unanswered questions the court failed to address. While the exam given met federal guidelines for validation by independent experts, was passage of the exam the right determinate for promotion?

Do we honestly believe that only white candidates are qualified in New Haven to lead?

The test of fairness is not found in the exam questions but in the outcomes of leadership.

The Supreme Court should have expressed interest about the outcome of the chosen testing, not the legal liability of the test defended by Justice Kennedy.

The University of Michigan Law School recently changed its entry exam qualifications to grant broader acceptance to applicants. The result was an increase in acceptance of minority candidates.

When the school then reviewed the success of graduates it found that the minority graduates experienced success by all measurable criteria equal to those who scored higher on the entrance exams.

That means the exam score did not matter, because all scored well enough to succeed, and success is not solely a determinate of testing.

Finally, is the nation colorblind? In 2003, Rush Limbaugh, then an ESPN sportscaster, claimed Donovan McNabb was a black quarterback, not simply an NFL quarterback.

In 2002, the NFL had 70 percent black players but only 28 percent black coaches.

In West Palm Beach in 2003 no black candidates were promoted though they scored higher on the written exams than white firefighters.

For 150 years whites in America received a hand-out, not a hand-up for the color of their skin. Is it too much to ask that minorities be permitted a balance of opportunity?

Jim Crawford is a contributing columnist for The Tribune and a former educator at Ohio University Southern.