Monday, May 25, 2009

How Very Un-Liberal of Me

At one point in this nation's history, police and fire departments were entirely composed of white men. I am not talking ancient history here. As recently as the 1970's, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and women were filing lawsuit after lawsuit against these departments in city after city alleging discrimination in hiring practices. They were right of course. These had been closed shops from which they had been excluded and this wrong had to be corrected. It was. Today these same departments contain members from all these groups and the closed shop is no more. This is a good thing and I am all for it. However, along the way something else happened which I have opposed consistently all my adult life. I have supported the idea that all Americans should have equal opportunity. However, this idea has been turned on it's head into a proposition that minority groups don't just deserve equal opportunity, but also equal results.

Using Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act as their cudgel, African American, Hispanic, female and other minorities have sued and have pushed for the idea that whenever a civil service test is administered, in which whites and minorities participate; if the minorities do not perform as well as the white applicants, the test is de facto discriminatory. If ten whites, ten African Americans, and ten women take a test; and eight white applicants pass, but only five African American and two women pass, the test is "in fact" discriminatory. It doesn't matter why. Even if the minority applicants didn't study or deliberately performed poorly, it did not matter. The test had to be thrown out or they would sue.

The Supreme Court just heard the case of white firefighters in New Haven, Connecticut, who took a promotional exam for lieutenant. The white firefighters scored better than the African American or Hispanic applicants, and secured the most spots for promotion. (Despite published reports, there were Hispanics and African Americans who had been promoted too.) The city of New Haven threw the test out and promoted no one because of fear of a lawsuit from African American firefighters who would not be promoted. A number of white firefighters sued; and the Supreme Court heard oral arguments about whether or not this was reverse discrimination. It is reverse discrimination; and the Court should rule that way.

Some of you may be shocked that a progressive like myself would side with the white firefighters; but it is precisely because I am progressive that I do side with them. Every person has the right to equal opportunity. No one has the right to equal results or outcome.

In San Francisco, this theory of equal results has been taken to extremes. When a test is given, the top finisher may not get a job or promotion. The city will look at a "band" of applicants(say the top twenty); and from that band they can take anyone. In a test for lieutenant or captain, they choose the 20th best person and deny a promotion to the top performer. They could take the 100th best performer and ignore numbers 1-99. Imagine a firefighter coming to your home who was number 100 on the list versus number one; and ask yourself if that makes any sense.

The results, in a city like San Francisco, is a department where height requirements, strength requirements, fire science requirements, and on the job expertise have been diluted or weakened so that more minorities can be hired. Thus, firefighters are hired who are not tall enough or strong enough to pull ladder off a truck to fight a fire. Valuable minutes are lost. In a city where the houses are very close together, a delay of minutes can be disastrous. A former fire chief told me of female firefighters who could not handle the saw that is used to vent roofs on a structure fire. Even worse was the promoting of inexperienced minority firefighters to officer positions where they directed other firefighters into dangerous situations. Years ago, at the Geneva Towers, an inexperienced officer led firefighters to an apartment fire, did not read the situation correctly, and ordered a door broken down. The resulting back draft critically injured a number of the firefighters.

No one argues that the test given in New Haven was unfair, prejudiced, or that it gave some advantage to white applicants. They argue that because minority applicants did not perform as well as whites, the test must be "de facto" discriminatory and thrown out. In essence, any test in which whites perform better is illegal. They want equal opportunity and equal results; and that is wrong.

A number of years ago, a controversy arose over the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The complaint was that there were not enough minority members. It turned out that auditions for he symphony were "blind". In other words, the judges had no idea who was playing because the person auditioning sat behind a screen. In order to increase the number of minority members the solution was simple...remove the screen.

The Supreme Court needs to uphold the legality of equal opportunity. Minority and female applicants have to be given all the help they can. Classes, tutoring, etc. should be offered. Strength training and conditioning classes should be offered. In New Haven they were told what books the questions would come from. However, the moment the door closes and the tests are opened, everyone should be on their own. Let the chips fall where they may. There is nothing immoral or illegal about someone outperforming someone else on a test. Jim Crow is not reinforced if a white applicant out-performs an African American; and feminism has not been harmed if a male out-performs a female. As long as it can be shown that everyone had an equal chance, that the playing field is level, we should be comfortable with the results. No one is claiming that the white firefighters in New Haven had an advantage. No one is claiming they cheated or received special treatment. No one is claiming minorities were given a different exam and did not have the opportunity to study. The city threw out the test because some applicants did not perform as well as others, and federal law would have allowed them to sue; so the city abdicated and dumped the test.

The Court should rule that all Americans deserve equal opportunity, but no American deserves a guarantee of equal results. Such a definition would be the definition of Progress. What do you think? I welcome your comments and rebuttals. Please send them to

1 comment:

  1. it is not un-liberal to demad firefighter physical standards are inforced. Firefighting is the agency of last resort, we serve those who society has past. These poeple deserve top notch firefighters, no matter color, sex or creed. to deny this is to threat the weak among us. Fire departements spent huge precentages of capital taking care of those who pay little tax, we are government redistubution of weath at its finest. It is liberal to care for those folks and further, by having underqualified folks we endanger those we have task with protecting us. firefighters deserve to be shrounded by competent peers to be safe