I am usually on the side of affirmative action but a case that is going to be heard by the Supreme Court raises all sorts of thorny questions. The case involves a group of New Haven, CT firemen who took an exam (part written, part oral) to qualify for a promotion. When none of the black applicants and only one Hispanic passed the exam, the exam was summarily thrown out and no one received promotions, neither white nor black.
Many fire departments in this country are notorious for their “family business” orientation. Many firemen come from long lines of firemen before them. In some cities, this involves a predominantly Irish and in particular white fire fighting population in which blacks have traditionally found it difficult to rise to leadership positions. The administration of a fair exam to even the playing field is exactly the right way to go. The sticky situation arises when the exam is tossed because of the demographic outcome of the scores. I’d have a less queasy feeling in my stomach if some objective party had looked at the exam and pointed out questions that were somehow biased, independent of how the applicants actually performed. The problem here is that it appears that the exam was deemed unfair ipso facto because blacks did not pass it. The cause effect connection here is not entirely compelling. Making things all the more murky is that the exam has been sealed by the court so the public can’t get a look at the offending questions.
To make matters worse, it was suggested on MSNBC’s “Hardball” tonight by a black advocate of the decision to toss the exam that it was the multiple choice part of the exam that appeared biased. Now I could understand if the oral interviews were being called into question. There we have the subjective assessment of what I assume are white interviewers questioning black applicants. While not conclusive, there is room there to charge bias. But on a multiple choice exam? This one escapes me. What magic questions could be so Caucasian-oriented that blacks just could not answer them? What’s more, these are not questions about haute cuisine or polo matches or Elizabethan poetry, all subjects that might put the average black fireman at a disadvantage (LOL and the average white one for that matter). These I assume are questions about firefighting. Questions that measure preparedness and leadership. What possible advantage could a qualified white fireman have at answering these questions that a qualified black fireman would not?
This case is such ripe fodder for anti-affirmative-action activists. The argument goes that affirmative action is an insult to the black man. A supreme condescension of a guilty liberal society toward fully capable blacks who are being treated like ne’er do wells who need a special dispensation. I am NOT ready to throw affirmative action out with the bathwater. As long as racism exists in this country, there must be methods used to combat it, to even the playing field. But when those methods involve looking at the result of a seemingly objective process and then based on that result alone declaring the process racially biased, then I have cause for concern. The cold hard fact is that it is just as likely that the black applicants in this case may simply have not taken the exam as seriously as their counterparts. It is very possible that they simply did not study for it to the degree of their white counterparts. It is a much more troubling conclusion that there was something inherent in their blackness that prevented their success at this exam. That is indeed an insult to the black applicants.
What is perhaps most interesting about this case is that a black man did not get chosen over a white man based solely on race. On the contrary, for the sake of political correctness and racial equality, all the applicants got screwed over and no one got their promotion. This was a lose-lose decision.
This is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to make an important differentiation about affirmative action. Every effort should be made to give an equal playing field to qualified blacks. Being qualified means passing the exam. When you flunk, you flunk. Case closed.