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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Supreme Court decision

I scoured the New York Times this morning in an effort to find one convincing argument against the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in favor of Ricci. I didn't find one on the front page. I did find one inside, though.

The front page merely quoted Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion: "Congress endeavored to promote equal opportunity in fact, and not simply in form. The damage today's decision does to that objective is untold."

Wrong, Ruth. You're confusing equality of opportunity with equality of results. Two different things entirely. It's not as if the black firefighters who took that test had to answer harder questions, or had their tests graded on a different scale. New Haven bent over backwards to find a test which contained no racially discriminatory material.

Those who use the phrase "equality of opportunity" to mean "equality of results" betray their dishonesty by their misuse of words. Usually, the best clue to which side is right and which wrong on an issue can be determined by how much they must mangle the language to make their case. When it comes to abortion, those who are for it call themselves pro-choice, and the opposition, anti-choice. Those against it call themselves pro-life, and their opposition, anti-life. Neither set of words is misleading or obfuscatory. And both sides have valid points. (I'm anti-life myself.)

The larger issue at stake in New Haven, affirmative action, is an obvious euphemism. The very nebulousness of the phrase shows clearly that its proponents want to be identified with something positive, but don't want it to be called exactly what it is: racial set-asides. "Affirmative action" by itself simply means, an action which affirms something, as in, "I affirmed my hatred of my neighbor the other day by running him over with my car." After all, that is an action, as well as an affirmation.

However, upon looking at the inside pages of the Times, I did come across a good argument against the New Haven test (if not the Supreme Court decision):

"In New Haven, city officials....said there was another, trusted method to select firefighting lieutenants and captains that posed less of a disadvantage to blacks and Hispanics. That method relies largely on assessment centers where applicants are evaluated in simulated real-life situations to see how they would handle them. Supporters of the idea say that assessment centers do far better than written exams in measuring leadership and communications skills and an applicant's ability to handle emergencies."

It's hard to disagree with this. Certainly a large part of what makes a good firefighter, and more importantly, a good leader of firefighters, is the ability to handle oneself in a stressful situation -- such as battling a four alarm blaze. It's one thing to perform well with a pencil while sitting at a desk in a quiet room. It's another to keep one's head and not panic when lives are at stake. And a paper and pencil test doesn't measure such things as the ability to yell loudly, i.e., have one's voice heard above the din (otherwise known as "communications skills").

There's a reason they have Hell Week for aspiring Navy Seals. To be an elite soldier, one must show a certain physical fortitude in the face of cold temperatures, sleeplessness, hunger, and other unpleasant conditions. Seals must also demonstrate the ability to hold their breaths for a certain length of time, and to stay calm when they lose their air supply underwater. And they must be ready to parachute from extremely high altitudes. Seals-in-training also have a fair amount of classwork. I have no doubt that I could, after the requisite amount of studying, pass the written exam easily. I have equally little doubt that I'm not up to the part which requires not panicking while losing one's face mask and oxygen supply in cold, murky water.

In any case, assessment centers for firefighters are a great idea, assuming they mirror the types of decisions that must be made in real firefighting. I'm not surprised that blacks do better in that type of exam. My experience has been that whites tend -- on average -- to be more nervous and panicky than blacks, even if they do better -- on average -- on more purely intellectual tests. If these assessment centers result in proportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics being promoted, great. If they result in a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics promoted, that's fine too. But if they should ever result in a disproportionate number of whites being promoted, that shouldn't be reason to throw the results out, any more than if blacks and Hispanics pass those exams disproportionately.

May the best men win.

In the meantime, throwing out the results of the previous New Haven test is changing the rules of the game after it is over, which seems less than sporting.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Assessment centers for firefighters sounds like a great idea, and I agree with the point that performance in a physically demanding, dangerous crisis situation could be better evaluated by an assessment center than an exam. A problem that would likely arise is that evaluating such performance, in some areas at least, would likely be subjective - opening the door to political pressure to assure certain desired results.

There is another affirmative action pressure in the fire fighter profession: women. An acquaintance is a fire chief who was put under tremendous pressure to hire a woman for his station. After making the correct career choice he now has a woman who cannot perform the physical rigors of the duty - and she stands aside during a fire and lets the men do the work. In effect they operate a 'man' down.

- Ed

John Craig said...

Ed -- It occurred to me that the assessment centers' "grading" could be a little on the subjective side, too. But still, a situation which is closer to a real emergency should be incorporated into the promotion criteria.

I also agree about women in firehouses. I remember about twenty years ago there was a huge to-do in NYC about the fact that they changed the rules for women firefighters so that instead of having to carry a 160 pound bag in the standard fireman's test, they only had to carry an 80 pound bag. How utterly ridiculous. I guess that qualifies you to rescue young children but not adults. I haven't heard anything about it since, and I couldn't tell you if that test has remained the same. I have to wonder, in cases like the one you describe, how that woman feels about her job performance. And I wonder how her coworkers feel about her.