According to the U.S. Supreme Court, several white firefighters were treated unfairly by the city of New Haven, Conn., when it refused to promote them despite their high scores on a promotional exam. In a 5-4 decision handed down on Monday, the court ruled that the city should not have scrapped the test just because black firefighters performed poorly.
That decision, in Ricci v. DeStefano, was eminently reasonable. You don’t change the score after the game is over.
To begin with, New Haven shouldn’t have staked firefighters’ promotions largely on the outcome of a classroom test; there are far better ways to determine leadership skills in a fire department. Many departments test prospective leaders by running simulations of real-life scenarios. After all, giving correct answers on a pencil-and-paper test hardly proves the capacity to lead the rescue of workers trapped in a burning building.
But if New Haven’s fire department unwisely stuck with a classroom test — and led all firefighters to believe promotions would be determined by those test scores — it was honor-bound to follow through. The city’s after-the-fact, don’t-like-the-results decision to toss the test was guaranteed to infuriate those firefighters who had done well and animate conservatives who detest all efforts to encourage diversity.
The high court’s four left-leaning justices supported New Haven, arguing that the city feared a lawsuit from black firefighters if none of them was promoted. (In essence, the four agreed with Judge Sonia Sotomayor, who supported New Haven in a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. So there are no grounds here to claim she’s incompetent.) In dissent, Justice Ruth Ginsberg noted, “Fire fighting is a profession in which the legacy of racial discrimination casts an especially long shadow.”
That is certainly true, especially in cities where Irish and Italian immigrants climbed into the middle class through patronage jobs, including slots in city police and fire departments. Their descendants came to believe those jobs rightfully belonged to them. Even now, cities such as New Haven — and New York, for that matter — lag in hiring and promoting black firefighters. But that doesn’t justify New Haven’s crude remedy.
There is now a significant history of affirmative action by cities and corporations, universities and the armed forces, state legislatures and private schools — a wide-ranging set of practices, procedures and standards designed to remedy centuries of overt discrimination against black Americans. A look at those efforts makes one thing clear: There is a right way to conduct affirmative action efforts, and there is a wrong way. New Haven went about it the wrong way.
Sometimes, in cynical moments, I wonder if some managers aren’t intentionally wrongheaded in their ham-handed efforts to promote diversity. They hire stupidly; they tell white candidates they can’t be hired because the next opening has to go to a minority; they don’t encourage open-mindedness in the ranks. Those managers then feel perfectly justified in throwing up their hands and declaring affirmative action a failure.
Perhaps that’s not true in New Haven. Perhaps fire department supervisors just blundered into their current circumstance and didn’t know how to proceed when the results showed no black candidates had scored high enough to get a promotion. Perhaps it didn’t occur to city fathers (and mothers) that firefighting is a team effort requiring trust, and that a divisive battle over a promotional exam would erode that trust.
New Haven now gets a do-over. The city can go back to the drawing board and design a test that’s fair to everyone.
While some commentators have declared President Barack Obama’s election a sign of a “post-racial” America in which we’re all colorblind, that analysis is a bit premature. Race still matters, and efforts to overcome the legacy of discrimination will be necessary for some time to come.
And, as long as those remedies are necessary, they ought to be carried out with some degree of competence.