- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009



The Supreme Court is considering whether race should trump intelligence in the hiring of firemen. If the justices decide it does, lives will be put at risk.

On April 22, the Supreme Court listened to arguments in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano. The fight is over whether New Haven, Conn., can legally scrap an already administered promotions test because no blacks ranked in the top 10. The tests, which were required for promotion to captain or lieutenant, were designed specifically to ensure race neutrality. Like many municipalities, New Haven hired the respected firm Industrial/Organization Solutions to design the test and protect the city from civil rights complaints.

The city’s civil-service board refused to certify the results and approved no promotions because the test did not yield enough high-scoring blacks. The lead plaintiff, Frank Ricci, is dyslexic and went to extraordinary efforts to pass the lieutenant’s exam. He paid a friend $1,000 to read textbooks onto audiotapes. He made flashcards, took practice tests, studied extensively with others and did multiple mock interviews. His hard work paid off, and he scored sixth-highest out of 77 candidates taking the exam. Despite this success, Mr. Ricci wasn’t promoted because he wasn’t the preferred race.

Throwing out tests when they don’t get the desired results shows a willingness to accept less-qualified blacks than whites. This has been an accepted practice for other types of jobs, such as police positions, because of the theory that having a racially balanced police force that reflects the community produces other benefits. This makes sense in some cases because hiring minority and female police officers can help reduce crime. Undercover operations - such as a prostitution sting - can only be conducted with certain types of officers. Also, many people may have greater trust in officers of their own race, and this trust can help police obtain more information about crimes and minimize the opportunity for racial conflicts.

It is dubious that hiring firefighters based on race helps fire crews do their jobs. There might be times when the race of the firefighter might make it easier for fire victims to trust him, but the argument is weaker than it is for police officers. The question is one of trade-offs and whether race should trump greater strength and intelligence for a job when people’s safety is at stake. The trade-offs don’t always work out. Setting aside important skills is a mistake even if race is not a factor. Canceling intelligence tests makes it more difficult to screen out low-quality candidates generally, whether white or black.

There is no question that racial discrimination has prevented minorities from getting jobs they deserved in some firehouses. Those injustices need to be addressed. But the solution is not to punish those who work hard to get ahead, such as Mr. Ricci. Scrapping promotion tests puts public safety at risk.

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