Monday, April 20, 2009

Distorting equality of employment

By Don Klein

Back in 1978 reverse discrimination became an issue when Alan Bakke, a white male, was rejected twice by a medical school that accepted less qualified minority applicants. Because the University of California had reserved 16 places out of 100 for minority students, Bakke’s application was turned down.

The case went to the Supreme Court which ruled against the quota system employed by the university but in a confusing decision upheld the overall concept of affirmative action.

Dubbed reverse discrimination by many, the concept of providing opportunities in education, employment and promotion at the expense of other non-black qualified individuals has come under fire through the years. It is a tough nut to crack.

Affirmative Action was adopted in this country to redress discrimination that had persisted despite civil rights laws and Constitutional guarantees. In "leveling the playing field" it opened many doors for advancement of African-Americans and has improved life for those who took advantage of the opportunities that became available. But there are times it has backfired and actually promoted discrimination of guiltless non-blacks.

Take the case of Frank Ricci, a New Haven, Conn., firefighter for 11 years. He felt qualified to be promoted to lieutenant, so he gave up a second job he had at the time, studied for 13 hours a day and hired an acquaintance at the cost of $1,000 to read textbooks into audiotapes for him. Ricci is dyslexic. It paid off. Ricci scored sixth among 77 candidates who took the test.

That was in 2003, but Ricci was not promoted. No one was. Why? Because none of the 19 blacks who took the test qualified for promotion. As a result New Haven has promoted no fire department lieutenants in the last six years.

"The city says it was merely trying to comply with a federal law that views job requirements like promotional tests with great suspicion when they
disproportionately disfavor minority applicants," The New York Times reported. "The fact of the matter is it’s a flawed test," said Victor A. Bolden, the city’s acting corporation counsel.

That hardly assuages Ricci and 16 other firefighters, including a Hispanic, who have banded together to sue the city alleging racial discrimination. They claim reverse discrimination on the basis because no blacks could be promoted because none passed the test, no whites would be promoted either.

The case goes before the United States Supreme Court.

How the court will rule on the case is impossible to predict, but there is one thing that is easy to see. The people of New Haven who depend on the fire department to protect them in cases of conflagrations are being shortchanged because of a quirky interpretation of the law. It appears that the city believes it is more important to deny the fire department needed front line leadership because one element in society – who are minorities – failed to meet the established standards.

It is clear that time-honored tests are established to fill the upper ranks with qualified personnel and since none of the black candidates qualified, no one was promoted. All this in the name of affirmative action. Indeed the city’s defense against the discrimination charges is founded on the grounds that since no one was promoted, no one can claim discrimination.

It is interesting that instead of appointing non-black candidates the city took the weird step of trying to avoid controversy by sidestepping all appointments. The alternative would have been to lower standards so a minority could have been appointed, but the city avoided that trap by doing nothing.

Facts of this kind have been undermining the civil rights movement for decades. Affirmative action has resulted in more blacks attending schools of higher education but many have been labeled, rightly or not, as token graduates with no real scholastic achievement. Of course, this ignores the many qualified blacks in all fields of endeavor, but preferential treatment which results in jobs to the least qualified among us sticks in the throat of most people.

Now that a half-black, half-white man is operating out of the Oval Office you would think that equality has been achieved in America, yet these employment bugs keep rising their ugly heads.

Affirmative action has been a part of American scene for nearly a half century. Much has been achieved in that time. Barack Obama’s ascension to the highest public office in the land, and the most powerful world figure, is the crowning accomplishment of American democracy. But he and his wife were successes even before he was elected president last year. It is a tribute to how far the African-American community has come.

Yet with that glorious background we still stumble around on the local level denying earned rewards to others if somehow in the scheme of things minority candidates do not measure up for equal promotions. Can you imagine what would have happened if only black candidates had passed the lieutenant’s test and no whites qualified? Would the city have held up promotions in the name of racial equality?

It reverts back to an old contention. Activists say the systems are stacked against blacks and ignore the fact that many blacks have succeeded under the very same rules that some insist are barricades to their future. Black firefighters have proved their worth in virtually every fire department in the country so why use the narrow focus of one community to withhold advancement for all because just a few minorities failed the test?

Let’s go back to the days before affirmative action when the black community had the legitimate claim that they were being discriminated against even when they were qualified. It was a justifiable charge. That’s when competent blacks were pushed aside by less qualified candidates. There was a time when that was true, and that was discrimination that needed to be corrected.

What happened in New Haven is a distortion of equal employment rule. True discrimination is when someone who is qualified is denied a job, as in the white firefighters’ case, and not when someone who is unqualified is not.


Charles said...

Ah, 1978. I remember it well. At that time I was a cop in Baltimore. Promotions were not unlike fire departments, you would study and take a test. Also, during that time, many legitimate questions were raised about standardized I.Q. and aptitude testing discriminating against minorities because of their cultural differences.

A claim that claim that promotional testing resembles standardized testing just doesn't hold because promotional testing places primary focus on what you know about doing your job.

Let's look, for a moment at the term, "reverse discrimination." Here's a legal definition taken from one of the on-line legal dictionaries: "A term used to refer to the exclusion of a member of a majority class not commonly discriminated against, to compensate for the traditional discrimination against a minority member. For example, management positions traditionally filled by members of the white race would be filled by African Americans, Asians, or Hispanics to the exclusion of any white candidates, even if the latter had seniority or were better qualified by reason of education, expertise, or temperament. It has been contended that such treatment, broadly known as affirmative action, is in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

The term, as I remember, didn't exist in 1964. It's a term of convenience, and demonstrates how easily it is to create a misnomer which, in effect, causes more problems than it solves.

Simply put, "discrimination" stands on its own. Discrimination is discrimination regardless of the direction. If you as a majority rob a minority, you have committed a crime...Robbery. On the other hand, if a minority robs you, it's not "reverse robbery."

So, why does this matter? It matters because, in the case of reverse discrimination, we have created a different kind of discrimination confusing the meaning of facts. To make matters worse it allows discrimination against the majority to carry a lesser importance than discrimination. The white firemen were victims of discrimination, Period.

Affirmative Action is another example of how we can twist the meaning and intent of a sensible law. Affirmative action does not legitimize discrimination, but it has been used, and accepted that way countless times. The case of the firemen points that out.

irwinb said...

Donald- By and large I agree with your very fine essay. I do take exception to one phrase

"Now that a half-black, half-white man is operating out of the Oval Office you would think that equality has been achieved in America".

How we all wish your statement were even close to the truth. There are still cases of discrimination in hiring, promotion, and firing every day.Progress has been excellent, but there is more that needs to be done.

I agree with your basic contention that in the New Haven case (which as a resident of New Haven, I have a special interest), is another example of an old adage "you can fall on your face as much leaning backwards, as leaning forwards