Commentary: Don't fight fire with fire in racial bias cases

Taken too far, efforts to fix past racial discrimination tip over into reverse discrimination. But how far is too far?

The U.S. Supreme Court took a well-aimed stab at that knotty question this week when it ruled that a group of white and Hispanic firefighters in New Haven, Conn., shouldn't have had their high test scores thrown out because the exam hadn't produced any black candidates for lieutenant or captain.

A case like this turns on the details. It's easy to imagine promotion requirements that are clearly unfair to minority candidates. In fact, American fire departments used to routinely screen out minorities – especially blacks – with a variety of practices unrelated to job performance. Passing out jobs to the sons and nephews of other firefighters, for example. Or simply not hiring and promoting blacks – or ostracizing any who did wind up getting hired.

New Haven, like a lot of cities, once had a nearly lily-white fire department. That's why it went to considerable lengths to come up with a neutral promotion exam that tested for actual job skills.

The history of that exam is at the heart of this case. Under the city charter, promotion must be done on the basis of merit as demonstrated in job-related tests. The city's contract with the firefighters union further requires that the test be written and oral, as opposed to performance in simulated emergencies – a standard used by many other cities.

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