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Reverse race bias case could transform hiring

Associated Press | 4/22/2009, 6:11 a.m.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Inside a burning building, fire doesn’t discriminate between Matthew Marcarelli and Gary Tinney. Inside the New Haven Fire Department, however, skin color has put them on opposite sides of a lawsuit that could transform hiring procedures nationwide.

This week, the Supreme Court is considering the reverse discrimination claim of Marcarelli and a group of white firefighters. They all passed a promotion exam, but the city threw out the test because no blacks would have been promoted, saying the exam had a “disparate impact” on minorities that was likely to violate the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Besides affecting how race can be considered in filling government and perhaps even private jobs, the dispute also addresses broader questions about racial progress — Do minorities and women still need legal protection from discrimination, or do the monumental civil rights laws that created a more equal nation now cause more harm than good?

Also, beneath the specific details of the firefighters’ lawsuit lies an uncomfortable truth — On most standardized tests, regardless of the subject, blacks score lower than whites.

Reconciling that reality with efforts to ensure “justice for all” remains a work in progress — one that will be molded by the Supreme Court.

New Haven’s population is 44 percent white, 36 percent black and 24 percent Hispanic (who can be any race). At the time of the 2003 test, 53 percent of the city’s firefighters, 63 percent of lieutenants and 86 percent of captains were white. Blacks comprised 30 percent of the firefighters, 22 percent of lieutenants and 4 percent of captains.

The promotion exams were closely focused on firefighting methods, knowledge and skills. The first part had 200 multiple-choice questions and counted for 60 percent of the final score. Candidates returned another day to take an oral exam in which they described responses to various scenarios, which counted for 40 percent.

Tinney, a black lieutenant who has been a firefighter for 14 years, was seeking a promotion to captain when he took the exam.

He says both the test and his fire department have hidden biases against minorities: The department is historically white, with the first blacks joining in 1957, and jobs, relationships, knowledge and choice assignments are passed on from friend to friend and generation to generation.

“I just call it ‘the network,’” Tinney said.

The white firefighters’ attorney, Karen Torre, said they would not be interviewed for this story. In a conversation on Fox News’ “Hannity” program, Marcarelli said it was “gutwrenching” to learn that he placed No. 1 on the test but would not get promoted.

“It’s something that shakes what you believe in. Because you believe if you work hard, you’re rewarded for that, and that’s not necessarily the case,” Marcarelli said.

Torre said whites have no special advantage in promotions because of laws requiring use of a race-blind, score-based system. She added that many blacks have relatives on the force, including high-ranking officers.

Of the 118 people who took the tests, 56 passed. Nineteen of the top scorers were eligible for promotion to 15 open lieutenant and captain positions. Based on the test results, the city said that no minorities would have been eligible for lieutenant, and two Hispanics would have been eligible for captain. (The lawsuit was filed by 20 white plaintiffs, including one man who is both white and Hispanic.)