Racial spoils system on trial

George Will:

Wednesday morning, a lawyer defending in the Supreme Court what the city of New Haven, Conn., did to Frank Ricci and 17 other white firemen (including one Hispanic) was not 20 seconds into his argument when Chief Justice John Roberts interrupted to ask: Would it have been lawful if the city had decided to disregard the results of the exam to select firemen for promotion because it selected too many black and too few white candidates?

In 2003, the city gave promotion exams — prepared by a firm specializing in employment tests, and approved, as federal law requires, by independent experts — to 118 candidates, 27 of them black. None of the blacks did well enough to qualify for the 15 immediately available promotions. After a rabble-rousing minister with close ties to the mayor disrupted meetings and warned of dire political consequences if the city promoted persons from the list generated by the exams, the city said: No one will be promoted.

The city called this a “race-neutral” outcome because no group was disadvantaged more than any other. So, New Haven’s idea of equal treatment is to equally deny promotions to those who did not earn them and those, including Ricci, who did.

Ricci may be the rock upon which America’s racial spoils system finally founders. He prepared for the 2003 exams by quitting his second job, buying the more than $1,000 worth of books the city recommended, paying to have them read onto audiotapes (he is dyslexic), taking practice tests and practice interviews. He earned the sixth-highest score on the exam. He and others denied promotions sued, charging violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law.

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This system is bad not only because it denies jobs to the more qualified, it also denies the city the best service it can obtain. One of the reasons for this countries exceptional achievements is that the person who is best qualified usually gets the job. No one thinks that slow short white guys should have a quota in the NBA. They want the team the support to excel regardless of its racial composition. We should demand the same from our public servants.

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