Wednesday, April 22, 2009

4-22-09: New Haven Firefighter Case

One of my co-workers pointed this out to me today, and I heard a piece on NPR on the way to class tonight about it.

Apparently, about five years ago, the City of New Haven, Connecticut (I live in a suburb of New Haven) gave out a test to firefighters seeking promotion. After seeing the results, the test was thrown out because it was allegedly racially biased because only whites and one Hispanic candidate passed. New Haven was worried that promoting these candidates and not those who failed the test would create a lawsuit.

Well, it backfired. The firefighters who passed the test and were not promoted ended up filing a lawsuit. It's been shot down by the lower courts, and is now being argued in the Supreme Court. And, to make matters more interesting, the nine members of the court are split on the decision, with only Justice Anthony Kennedy undecided.

My take on this is simple: what was the point of the test? If the point was to create more diversity in the New Haven firefighter corps, then perhaps it's a legitimate reason to throw out the test. But, as the attorney for the white firefighters pointed out, the point was to promote the most capable candidates.

Since New Haven approved the test beforehand, and advertised it as a fair test for those who wished to be promoted can take to advance their career, then it is equally unfair to these candidates who passed the test to not be promoted. And, just because the test results fall remarkably along racial lines does not make the test racially unfair. It is unlikely, but what if the candidates who didn't pass were actually unqualified? Is a fair test to assess an employee's capability only fair if it doesn't favor any ethnicity? I think this is a gross misinterpretation of civil rights legislation.

It will be interesting to see how this case pans out, with a decision expected some time this summer.

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