Affirmative Action Battle over Title VII of US Civil Right Act Heads to the Supreme Court

In March, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court plans to hear the case of Ricci v. DeStefano — a pivotal affirmative action related matter that has been migrating through the court system for more than 6 years.

Here’s the backstory. Back in 2003, the City of New Haven subjected candidate firefighters to a qualifying exam. Despite going to extensive lengths to ensure that the exam was “race neutral,” the results skewed dramatically along racial lines. African-American candidates for Lieutenant and Captain positions passed at half the rate of white firefighters. Fearing that allowing the results of the exam to stand could violate prima-facie rules of Equal Employment, (which hold employers in suspicion if they promote one ethnic group disproportionately to another ethnic group), Mayor John DeStefano office’s nullified the results.

This action brought charges of reverse discrimination — the 19 white firefighters and one Latino firefighter who had passed the exam alleged that they had been denied opportunity based on the color of their skin — in direct violation of Title VII. Ironically, claimed the plaintiffs, in bending over backwards to ensure equal opportunity to African American firefighter candidates, the city had in effect resorted to racial typecasting.

The battle over interpretation of Title VII may have significant impacts for future affirmative action and employment discrimination cases. It also raises a number of thorny ethical and legal philosophical questions. For instance:

•    If the defendants win, will other employers take race even more into account when assessing candidates for promotion?

•    If the New Haven 20 (as the plaintiffs have come to be called) prevail, will other similar racially tinged antidiscrimination cases deluge the court system?

•    In general terms, does it make sense to correct for past racial injustices by using race-based affirmative action to “balance the scales”? Or does this practice merely rub salt in our nation’s racial woods?

•    How will the outcome of Ricci v. DeStefano impact race relations in the City of New Haven? Given that the New Haven is famous for its racial and class divides — prestigious Yale University, for instance, is located just blocks away from some of Connecticut’s poorest urban areas — might The Supreme Court’s ruling touch off frustrations in this community?