Here in America, where white privilege is the status quo, where the white community is well represented in any and every given set of opportunities, we have made the public choice to ignore racial disparity. The Supreme Court ruled that white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut were unfairly denied promotions because of their race, reversing a decision endorsed in a lower court. This latest ruling on employment practices with respect to racial disparity will make it considerably more difficult to prove discrimination because of the condition that it must be intentional. Accidental racial discrimination is okay.
In a split decision the highest court decided that the city of New Haven was wrong to scrap a promotion exam simply because no African-Americans and only two Hispanic firefighters were likely to receive promotions based on the results. The city said that it had acted to avoid a lawsuit from minorities. However, on behalf of the majority of five justices, Anthony Kennedy wrote that fear of litigation alone cannot justify an employer’s reliance on race to the detriment of individuals who passed the examinations and qualified for promotions. Mr. Kennedy was joined by John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence “wouldn’t spit on the black community if it was on fire” Thomas.
On behalf of the minority of opposing justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that the white firefighters had no vested right to promotion nor have any other non white person received promotions in preference to them. Ms. Ginsburg wrote that the court should have assessed the starkly disparate results of the exams against the historical and ongoing inequality in the New Haven fire department. As of 2003, she said, only one of the city’s twenty one fire captains was black. Justices David Souter, Stephen Breyer and John Paul Stevens signed onto the dissent. Ms. Ginsburg predicted that the court’s ruling will not have staying power. Unfortunately, it should be pretty obvious that racial discrimination has a lot more staying power than Ms. Ginsburg gives it credit for.
Karen Torre, the attorney for the white firefighters, said that the ruling is a sign that individual achievement should not take a back seat to race or ethnicity and employers cannot bow to politics and pressure and lobbying by special interest groups or act to achieve racial quotas. White firefighter Frank Ricci said the ruling proved that if you work hard, you can succeed in America. I find the implication that black firefighters don’t work hard like their white counterparts a first class example of the typical racial rhetoric that justifies the perpetual second class status of the black community.
As Ms. Ginsburg said we should not be so quick to discard the historic context of what our system built on a foundation of race preference that for centuries have benefited the white community has wrought. In an attempt to appear utterly race neutral we are ready to ignore the past and the current thinking that somehow if we simply stay the course the racial divide will heal itself. But when given a prime opportunity to see that a hands-off approach is not working, that a system of opportunity based on the one consideration of a test score, will exempt black people from qualifying, we chose to support racially skewed systems that favor white privilege.
Essentially, Mr. Kennedy wrote that fear of the future, that the city of New Haven could be sued over the fact that no black candidate qualified for promotion, is not reason enough to throw out the test. But then Mr. Kennedy and his cohorts in the majority make a ruling that is based on fear of the future. The white firefighters feared the fact that they could lose their advantage in a promotion system that could have been more statistically racially neutral.
The talk that this ruling proves that hard work leads to success in America is nothing but talk. There is no proof that the white firefighters worked any harder than the black ones other than a numerically higher result on a test. If someone was to give a test on Chicago trivia I’m pretty sure no one would say that a Chicagoan doing better than a Houstonian is proof that people in Chicago work harder. There are other factors that should be taken into consideration that are simply forgotten for the sake of expediency.
But one thing this ruling does prove is that we as a national community are willing to disregard the historical context of race discrimination on an entire community in order to protect the advantage of individuals in the white community. Many people claim that they want to see an end to racial discrimination. However, the day that our gross condition of disparity along racial lines becomes statistically insignificant won’t happen as long as we continue to protect instances of gross racial disparity.