Monday, June 29, 2009

Mixed Messages

As I read about the Supreme Court's ruling regarding some firefighters suing for reverse-discrimination, I couldn't help but think how ridiculous many of our modern racial ideas and policies are. In this particular case, I believe that Supreme Court made the right decision. However, the current civil rights environment makes even ordinaryily simple employment and promotion practices quite complex.

Here is a brief summary of the origins of the lawsuit:

Monday's decision has its origins in New Haven's need to fill vacancies for lieutenants and captains in its fire department. It hired an outside firm to design a test, which was given to 77 candidates for lieutenant and 41 candidates for captain.

Fifty-six firefighters passed the exams, including 41 whites, nine blacks and six Hispanics. But of those, only 17 whites and two Hispanics could expect promotion.

The city eventually decided not to use the exam to determine promotions. It said it acted because it might have been vulnerable to claims that the exam had a "disparate impact" on minorities in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The white firefighters said the decision violated the same law's prohibition on intentional discrimination. The lawsuit was filed by 20 white plaintiffs, including one man who is both white and Hispanic.
In some ways, the city was truly caught between a rock and a hard place. Ironically, their decision to not use the exam, which was made as an intentional effort to avoid any sort of discrimination lawsuits, resulted in being sued for discrimination. If they had used the exam, they were afraid of being sued by those minorities who wouldn't have received promotions, and since they didn't use the exam, they were sued by those who non-minorities who felt unfairly treated simply because they were white. Between the flurry of frivilous litigation and the catch-22 nature of modern laws, life is needlessly complicated for everyone; rather than eliminating racially-oriented motivations, the public awareness and touchniess has been heightened.

In my opinion, anti-discrimination laws are quite unreasonable and unjust to begin with. And, even if they were reasonable, they often serve to cause the opposite of the desired effect. The goal of anti-discrimination laws is to result in a nation where all people are treated with equal dignity and respect, regardless of their unchangable differences. Therefore, a person should be treated differently if he has black skin than if he has white skin. A woman should not be treated differently simply because she is a woman. It's a great goal. People should be viewed as individuals and not merely as members of their racial group.

However, all of the various anti-discrimination laws that are passed force employers and businesses to very intentionally recognize and view each individual not simply as a person, but as a member of their racial group. Businesses have to bend over backwards to ensure their hiring choices present an image of being racially accepting and to ensure that there is sufficient racial diversity among employees. These laws accomplish the opposite of what they are intended to do. While trying to squelch unequal treatment and ensure that people are seen simply as individuals, the effects of such laws are that a different sort of unequal treatment takes place and all individuals are seen not as individuals but, specifically, as members of their racial group. You see this sort of thing in surveys, on standardized tests, in college admission practices and in the workplace. People are forced (or at least strongly encouraged) to report their racial origins. This reporting which is supposed to eliminate artificial distinctions only serves to further establish and propagate such backwards thinking.

I'm happy that some people are standing up and complaining about it. And, I'm happy that our Supreme Court affirmed that even people who are in majority racial groups should not be mistreated solely based on their race.

UPDATE - I can't say I'm too surprised to see this article today. Of course employers are going to be confused about our nation's odd double standards. Real shocker!

"Employers will now face a convoluted minefield when attempting to protect workers from discrimination," Henderson said. "Employers are looking for bright lines ... they're looking for clear directives to help them better understand how they can engage in nondiscriminatory decisions."

"In the meantime, we're scratching our heads," she said. "We're concerned about the impact on employers who want to comply with the law and do not want to discriminate ... and it's not clear how to do that."

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