Sunday, July 12, 2009

Supreme Court sets back affirmative action

Supreme Court sets back affirmative action

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Consider this test question that measures sports knowledge among a group of people 70 years of age and older who claim to be baseball fans:

“Who was the best professional right-handed pitcher between 1930 and 1955?”

Those completely focused on major league baseball might answer, “Bob Feller.”

Those who know something about the “Negro League”—racism kept African Americans out of MLB until 1947—would probably answer, “Satchel Paige.”*

What’s the right answer? The answer is that it’s hard to make a test that has no cultural bias, even when that is the goal.

That’s what the city of New Haven, Conn., discovered in 2003 when it assigned a multiple-choice test as part of the criteria for promoting firefighters to officer positions. Though some of New Haven’s African-American firefighters passed the test, none scored high enough to be promoted. Nineteen white firefighters and one Latino qualified for promotion.

There were obviously African-American firefighters in New Haven who would be capable supervisors. Following the guidelines for affirmative action indicated by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and later decisions on achieving increased equality, the city of New Haven’s authorities decided—quite reasonably—that the problem was with the test.

This meant that the written/oral test excluded Black supervisors and would thereby reinforce the weight of 400 years of slavery, 138 additional years of oppression and discrimination, and the current load of institutionalized racism. A test that excludes in this way is illegal. It creates additional problems for a city whose population is 60 percent Black and/or Latina/o. The city decided to postpone the promotions until they found a more nearly unbiased test.

Unfortunately for working-class solidarity, the 19 white firefighters and one Latino sued for the promotions. A lower court—in which Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor took part—approved the city’s decision. But in late June the U.S. Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote reversed the lower court and decided the promotions should go through. The usual arch-reactionary justices made up the majority.

A complete overhaul of the educational, court, prison, economic and social structure is needed to eradicate all forms of racist inequality. Affirmative action, while only a small remedy to confront the vast weight of institutional racism that still exists throughout U.S. society, is still better than nothing. The court’s decision should be reversed as soon as possible—reversed in the streets and in the next decision by the court.

It is likely that the 20 firefighters who took part in the suit, plus the Black firefighters, are all qualified for promotion. A multiple-choice test is a questionable measure of the ability to make emergency split-second decisions of how to deploy forces while a building is burning or how well the “troops” will respond to a command.

The 20 who sued celebrated the court decision and their promotions. One can easily see that they wanted, and believed they were entitled to, an increase in pay, respect and whatever other benefits go with a promotion. But it is a short-sighted celebration. By damaging affirmative action, the decision makes it harder to build the kind of solidarity with the African-American firefighters and with the community in general that is needed to advance the struggle of all firefighters and the community they serve.

If, faced with a tight budget, New Haven tries to cut Fire Department funding and firefighters’ salaries and benefits, real solidarity among Black, white and Latina/os will be needed to defend workers’ interests.

Beyond New Haven, it is right and just for every worker to defend affirmative action, whatever its limitations. That means it is also in white workers’ interests to defend affirmative action. Only that way can the working class, made up of all nationalities, build the solidarity needed for a successful, united struggle that will provide jobs for all at a decent wage and respect for all working people in general.

The best struggles will aim for advances for all workers while eliminating inequalities among them.

This court decision has an additional wrinkle because of Sotomayor’s role. The racist right-wing gang who attack her for everything progressive she has done and for her Puerto Rican background also calls her “biased” in this case. What nonsense! What Sotomayor did in this case was make a defensible legal decision that left affirmative action standing.

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