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Firefighters Stoke The Fires Of Disparity


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.

Monday, June 29, 2009 - Posted by | African Americans, Black Community, Life, Racism, Supreme Court, Thoughts


  1. As usual you have missed the point and choose to decry REAL equality not the stacked deck you prefer.

    Comment by C, Frank Madgett | Tuesday, June 30, 2009 | Reply

    • I guess I have missed the point. How could it be equal when only white people are getting opportunities of promotion? If only white people are being promoted then how is this equal? As usual the deck is stacked in the favor of white privilege.


      Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Tuesday, June 30, 2009 | Reply

  2. I’ve been very curious about the test itself. I did hear that one of the white firefighters was dyslexic and hired a coach and used flashcards to help him do well on the test, but I have to wonder then: what kind of a test is this that determines promotion for fire fighters? Shouldn’t it be based on … oh, excellent judgement and experience about how to deal with smoke conditions, how to get people out of a burning building, how to avoid collapsing beams, and the like? What could possible be memorized on flash cards that would warrant a promotion?

    But to the main point: They guy had the wherewithall to HIRE a coach to help him. He has no doubt had extra support all the way to help with the dyslexia. And so he should! In this case, the judges didn’t feel that the coaching was unfair. I don’t know if any test support was available to the black firefighters.

    Tests always risk being unfair because those making the tests make assumptions about the familiarity with the contexts they describe to set the questions.

    Comment by Bettina Hansel | Tuesday, June 30, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks for the feedback Bettina Hansel,

      I have been curious about the test as well. What kind of written test do firefighters take to determine who is to be promoted? If I was in a fire and there was a firefighter rescuing me the last thing on my mind would be how high his test score was. Can he do the job?


      Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | Reply

  3. A lot of what firefighters deal with, in practice, involves rules and regulations. This is especially true once firefighters have experience and are promoted. While you aren’t concerned about rules and regulations when being rescued, you sure hope that the more senior firefighters in the department have been handling administration well, so that your rescue goes smoothly!

    Even basic firefighting, though, requires a solid knowledge of fire characteristics and how to handle specific situations. You don’t want firefighters who are simply brave and know how to put on a coat and swing an axe.

    Comment by James | Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | Reply

  4. From what I have been hearing on NPR about the test is that it was weighted so that it placed a higher percent of its score from a written multiple choice test versus the verbal job knowledge questions.

    They are saying that certain vocabulary is used in these written tests that disparage some races versus others. That is the reason the State was pulling the test. If they went on the verbal alone it would have been a mix of races and therefore not as one sided.

    Also, the people giving the verbal test were from outside and a mix of all racial background in hopes of preventing discrimination. And what was said is that there was NO discrimination because no one was promoted. If they had promoted the blacks over the whites then you would have a problem.

    They were throwing everything out in order to devise a test that was not weighted to any one area. And it has been widely assessed inside the firefighter community that New Haven was using a testing procedure everyone else left in the dust long ago. So that tells me that it wasn’t really a fair assessment.


    Comment by theblacksentinel | Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | Reply

  5. [Comment Deleted]

    Comment by C, Frank Madgett | Sunday, July 5, 2009 | Reply

  6. C, Frank Madgett,

    Your less than helpful comment has been deleted. If people like me make you so sick why do you bother to come back and post your shit? People like you can go to fucking hell! Your comments are no longer welcome.

    Good riddance…

    Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Sunday, July 5, 2009 | Reply

  7. As the article pointed out since 2003 only one other black person is a captain. Even with this information you would want to know how many blacks have took the test each time it was given. What is being tested? What is the test measuring? Has anyone seen the test to see what kind of information you need to know to pass? Is the test public information? Also some people just do well on multiple choice type questions and true and false type tests? In a command position you don’t want someone who is simply a good test taker, but someone who knows the regs. but can make sound life saving decisions.

    Comment by Fredhead Smyth | Thursday, July 16, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks for the feedback Fredhead Smyth,

      I’ve asked the same questions. I was watching the Colbert Report when it claimed to have seen the test. One of the questions from the test was actually, “Which one of the words below is spelled correctly?” So I guess spelling is one of those criteria that makes for good firefighters.


      Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Friday, July 17, 2009 | Reply

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