Monday, May 4, 2009

What Race is Your Fireman?

A landmark reverse discrimination case, Ricci v. DeStefano, was heard by the Supreme Court on April 22. (See here for a list of relevant documents The outcome of this case could have a profound impact on the current state of racial policies in America. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will put a dent in the racist affirmative action policies that have become the accepted norm in America.

In short, Ricci v. DeStefano pits white and Hispanic firefighters against city officials in New Haven. The firefighters’ claim is that they were denied promotions due to their race. After a promotion exam yielded a racial disparity, leaving no black employees eligible for promotion, the city tossed out the results of the exam. They bypassed the highest scoring individual (who was white) in favor of promoting a more ‘diverse’ group of firefighters. (See ABC and MSNBC for further discussion).

This is an atrocious overreach of a policy, affirmative action, which is supposedly designed to remove racial inequities and ease America’s history of racial tension. Not only are New Haven’s actions unfair, but they are quite counterproductive. America is supposedly runs on a merit based system. We award promotions, bonuses, and raises to those who have performed well. Gains that are made in spite of merit are frequently disparaged. Look at the criticisms of Wall Street bonuses. Critics of large bonus always argue that the bankers did not deserve them. America operates on nearly every level as a meritocracy.

This is good for a number of reasons. First and foremost it incentivizes. It gives individuals reasons to be good at what they do- and get better. It encourages people to be hardworking and efficient. Secondly, through these incentives it helps to create a better society for all. The best-of-the-best rise to the top, forming stronger and more stable institutions. Most people would agree that they want the most qualified firemen and women leading the fire company. Few people would care what skin color the person has who saved their life. Presumably, New Haven felt this way too. After all, they originally developed and used a merit-based test to decide whom to grant promotions too.

However, this all fell apart when, for some reason, the racial makeup of the fireman did not match up with the merit-based hierarchy. It is unclear why the city felt the need to place racial diversity over merit. One possibility is that they believe the system would be much better with a broad swath of races at every level. Alternatively, they were overly concerned of charges of racism by the minorities who scored at the bottom of the exam. In order to avoid the standard litigation that would result if no blacks were promoted, New Haven probably felt that an affirmative action program was the safest recourse.

Unfortunately, this is far too common a problem in our society. We have moved far in the past forty years from a society steeped in racism. Much of this is because brave men and women fought against injustices that prevented people from rising, despite their merit. However, as we achieved this great success, we rapidly moved into overreach. Proponents of affirmative action are not looking to have equal access based on merit, but rather a greater number of ‘minorities’ present at higher levels. This is simply based on skin color. We are now too often left with an unfortunate reverse discrimination such as what we see in New Haven. Black individuals were promoted not because they were more qualified, but because they had better skin color. This is turning the corrupt system, prevalent in America prior to the 1960s, right on its head.

This is absolutely unfair. Just as the pre-Civil Rights system was unfair to blacks, this system is unfair to whites. Martin Luther King and his ilk fought for justice and equality, not a new color-coding of the system. Unfortunately, we have become so hypersensitive to discussions of race that we are unable to have open discussions about it. This allows bullies, such as Al Sharpton, to push their partisan, self-interested agendas with little impedance. Any arguments to the contrary are dismissed as racism.

This non-merit system is disastrous for our country. Not only does it give disincentives to work (after all why would I work hard if I know I am just going to passed over for promotion because my skin color is wrong), but it creates sourness and discord between Americans. The Civil Rights movement’s aim was to create reconciliation between the races (this is why MLK succeeded as its leader and not Malcolm X). We have swung the pendulum to the middle; we need to stop it from swinging too far to the other side.

Everything should be based on merit. Race should not be a consideration in the hiring, firing, and promotion process. There may very well be a reason behind the discrepancy in the scores of blacks, whites, and Hispanics on the New Haven promotion exam. We need to investigate why blacks performed worse. However, simply ignoring the reason for this discrepancy and covering up a possible deeper problem is not the answer. Affirmative action is not a solution, but a purposeful self-blinding. It prevents us from seeing the solutions to real problems; and frustrates America’s forward progress. Hopefully, the Supreme Court will take the steps necessary to end such practices.

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