Friday, April 10, 2009
Death throes for affirmative action?
There was a time when it was good news for the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to decide a controversy involving racial prejudice. At least there was a probability that the justices would issue a clear, well-reasoned opinion that advanced racial equality in U.S. society. But that was then. Now, with George W. Bush-appointee John G. Roberts Jr. as chief justice, everyone has to wonder what good can come from the court's decision to hear a case involving a New Haven, Conn., firefighter's claim of reverse-racism in a 2003 promotional examination. Oral arguments in the case, Ricci v. DeStefano (No. 07-1428), will be heard April 22, according to the New York Times. The case involves allegations by 17 firefighters -- 16 whites and one Hispanic -- that they were discriminated against by the city of New Haven when the results of the lieutenant's exam they took in 2003 were thrown out because none of the 19 black firefighters who took it qualified for promotion. Frank Ricci, a dyslexic white firefighter who says spent more than $1,000 on coaching, finished sixth out of 77 who took the exam. No firefighters have been promoted since the exam was given. The city contends it threw out the case to comply with federal law that recommends "great suspicion" of job requirements that disproportionately disfavor minorities. But what makes the case especially noteworthy is it is first test for the Roberts court on claims of racial discrimination in employment, the Times said, and Roberts has been outspoken in his opposition to racial preferences in education. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” he wrote in a 2007 decision. With luck, the court will only decide the question raised by the appeal -- whether the city acted properly in this particular circumstance. But because education is a far different arena than employment, the court could break new (or old) ground in employment law, prompting interest groups to file brief weighing in on the decision. It's even possible that the conservative Roberts court took the case because it was looking for a way to end affirmative action, which has without question helped raise standards of living for blacks and other minorities in the United States over the past few decades. A federal appeals court in New York upheld the decision, but six of 13 appellate justices urged the U.S. Supreme Court to step in and decide the case.