Fire department takes heat for discrimination

By Michelle Chen Apr 23, 2009

The Supreme Court today weighed a case that may change the way public safety institutions perceive “reverse racism.” It started when the fire department of New Haven, Connecticut decided to throw out the results a civil service exam, intended to fill higher-ranking positions, because the results were racially skewed; the existing scoring system would have given all but one the 15 open spots to whites. The city concluded that the testing process was flawed and invalidated the test. Christopher Meade, a lawyer for the city, told NPR that no one was discriminated against directly if the entire test was scrapped:

"The plaintiffs were not passed over for promotions. They were not denied promotions. No one less qualified has been promoted. In fact, no one has been promoted at all… There was a real question, however, whether the process was fair."

In court, Meade contended, “When an employer learns that a practice has a severe adverse impact such that it creates an inference of discrimination… the employer should be granted some limited degree of flexibility to act.” So the city acted. But that prompted outrage from a group of white firefighters who felt cheated out of an opportunity they felt entitled to. Gregory Coleman, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued before the court that the city had made an illegitimate “race-based decision,” and that “Governmental employment actions grounded in race must be strictly scrutinized because they engender divisiveness and cause race-grounded harm that the Constitution seeks to avert.” The lawsuit has an odd parallel in New York City, where Black firefighters are challenging the New York City Fire Department with allegations of longstanding racially biased hiring practices. The FDNY controversy (which we blogged about last month) also centers on biased test results that have maintained an overwhelmingly white firefighting force. But the core dilemma in both cases is whether and how the government must honor a higher standard of fairness and equity when choosing people to carry out its work—a mandate that extends beyond just getting the job done. Attorney Edwin Kneedler of the Department of Justice explained in court today that a discriminatory test could inflict harm beyond the individual test-takers: an unfair system undermines the value of any score, whether a pass or a fail.

“the people promoted here may actually be taking advantage of a test that imposes barriers and disadvantages other people. So when — when we consider the impact in a situation like this on somebody who has passed the promotion test, it’s important to consider that the people who have passed it may have benefited from a test that is discriminatory.”

Last week at a roundtable discussion at Racialicious , Latoya Peterson reflected on the slippery concept of “colorblindness” as a veiled end-run around diversity goals:

“I don’t trust the fact that people who work in public safety are colorblind. Not police. Not social workers. Not the people who decide ecologically unsafe materials go into minority neighborhoods.”

The New Haven case hits many of the raw nerves surrounding affirmative action, which the court has eroded with respect to education. The election of a Black president has no doubt stirred debates on whether the country has somehow moved beyond the need for government-mandated remedies to structural racism. Why should a fire department take such dramatic steps to ensure adequate representation of people of color in its ranks? On the local level, we face a question of what role equity and integration should play in the institutions that run our communities. That’s not political correctness; that’s political reality. Image: New Haven Firefighter Gary Tinney (AP)