White makes right?

July 3, 2009

white-black

The recent court case reversing the lower court decision on a discrimination suit by New Haven firemen got me thinking.  The white firemen claim that they were unfairly denied promotions when the department changed the exam and readministered it, hoping to get more minority-group officers in place.  It seems to me that their case is based on the assumption that they have a right to be promoted, which was, I believe, the gist of Justice Ginzburg’s dissent.

Let’s see…a racially and ethnically diverse city, New Haven, decides that it should have a fire department that reflects its citizenry.  Okay.  They have an all-white department, so they start recruiting non-white candidates.  Okay.  They have no success, so they say, “We are not getting the result we want.  We have to change our recruiting policies.”  Nobody has a problem with that.

So they change, and the nature of the firefighting force changes.  But all the captains are white.  They feel they have a qualified pool of minority firemen, but none of them pass the test.  So they change the test.  The white firemen sue.

There seems to be an assumption current that the test was “dumbed down.”  I don’t think any evidence for that was presented.  The only other reason to challenge the action of the department is if you support the notion that the firemen who first passed the test have a right to be promoted.  Maybe there is a legal-contractual issue here, e.g., it is not allowed to refuse promotion once the test is passed, etc., but I don’t think so.  Why do they have any more of a right than any other group in the department?  Isn’t the policy of the department more important?

It reminds me of the suits brought by white students against universities when they fail to gain admission to a prestigious law or medical school.  The claim is that a qualified white student was refused to offer a seat to a non-white person.  The implication is that the minority student was not qualified, often simply because his or her SAT scores were lower.  (How the one-to-one association between who is refused and who is admitted is made is unclear to me!)  Here again, the assumption is that the white student has the right to a seat that has been stolen.  This is presumptuous.

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