Friday, October 23, 2009

Affirmative action for white firefighters challenged

In 2003, virtually none of the minority applicants for promotions in the fire department of New Haven, Connecticut, scored well enough on a written exam to be promoted. The city of New Haven, fearing a lawsuit, threw out the results. They were worried that accepting the results would have been in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which prohibits what is called disparate impact discrimination. This part of the law "prohibits employers from using promotional or hiring procedures that screen out minorities unless they can prove that the procedure is closely job-related," according to Richard Thompson Ford. As a result, Frank Ricci and other white firefighters sued, claiming to be the victims of racial discrimination. Last summer, the Supreme Court sided with the white firefighters. Now, a black New Haven firefighter, Michael Briscoe, has sued New Haven for disparate impact discrimination. Though the story is a bit complicated, you can read about it here. You can read more about Frank Ricci here. And you can read about the damage the Supreme Court's Ricci ruling has done to civil rights in this country here.

I don't think many Americans understand just how strong the arguments for affirmative action are, and just how bad arguments against affirmative action tend to be. Perhaps I can post a more detailed discussion on this topic in the future. But here's the situation as I see it. The empirical evidence strongly suggests that minorities are at a disadvantage in this country in all important respects. And the best explanation for that disadvantage is that minorities are the victims of present discrimination and the legacy of past discrimination, from which white men—including those who have never themselves unfairly discriminated against anyone in their lives—benefit. Affirmative action can help correct this injustice. White men who claim that they are victims of reverse discrimination—like the white New Haven firefighters—are simply feeling the discomfort that comes with losing an unfair advantage that they didn't deserve in the first place.

When laws intended to correct unfair discrimination are gutted, whites themselves become beneficiaries of affirmative action. According to Ford, the Supreme Court may have effectively gutted Title VII's prohibition of disparate impact in its Ricci decision, which would make it easier to discriminate against minorities. The irony is, of course, that the Supreme Court, in striking down what it saw as reverse discrimination, has effectively given its approval to affirmative action for white men.

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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence. ---W.K. Clifford

Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear. ---Thomas Jefferson