2009-07-17 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Cartoon Tells The Tale: 'Black Or White, I Want The Best'
Commentary By Howard Schwach

The political cartoon by Signe Wilkinson appearing in The Washington Post says it all.

A woman sticks her head out of a window. Flames flick at her and appear in the windows that surround her.

A ladder appears in the lower quadrant of the cartoon.

"My racial preferences," she asks. "The one who gets up here first."

Everybody wants "the best person for the job" when it comes to the public sector.

They want their kid's teacher to be the best teacher in the city. They want the cop on the beat, the firefighter that responds to their home in an emergency, the 911 operator, the sanitation collector and the emergency medical technician to all be the best for the job.

Of course, there are always some who value a 'diverse workforce" over the concept of the best person for the job, but most of those people don't live in the real world.

It's like the old saying, "a liberal is a liberal only until he gets mugged."

Unfortunately, the editorial writers for the New York Times are among those who don't live in the real world.

Editorializing on the Supreme Court Decision in the Connecticut case where the City of New Haven threw out a fire promotion list because there were not sufficient minorities on the list, the Times said, "Many black and Hispanic firefighters took New Haven's promotion exam, but few passed. This sort of racial disparity makes an exam illegal."

Run that by me again. If too many of any group fails a test, that test is, by its very nature, illegal?

What slippery slope does that kind of thinking lead us to?

The Times argues, based on that very flawed and biased basis, that the Supreme Court was wrong, that the test was "obviously flawed and probably illegal."

The Supreme Times Editorial Board has spoken.

One of the men who passed the test and sued the city for throwing out the test is dyslexic. He studied for hundreds of hours in order to pass the test, used volunteer tutors and transcribed his notes over and over again so that he could remember them.

Even so, he passed the test. Did he deserve to be kept from promotion simply because he is not black?

Remember, the city did not say that the test was flawed. City officials testified that they threw out the test because they feared being sued by minorities and that gave them the right to throw out the whole list of those who passed.

They argued that their decision was "race neutral" because both white and minorities were impacted by throwing out the list, ignoring that the great majority of those who passed, but would not be promoted, were white.

One who was not white is Ben Vargas, a Hispanic man who passed the test and joined the white firefighters in their suit.

Vargas was reportedly at a firefighter's retirement party when he was sucker-punched by a black firefighter who did not pass the test.

He believes that he was assaulted because he joined the suit.

By the way, Vargas had the sixthhighest mark on the test.

Did Lieutenant Vargas deserve to be denied a captain's slot just because he is not black?

The Supreme Court does not think so, but the New York Times does.

They believe that the Constitution allows specific people to be harmed if that harms something that it calls "the greater good."

I don't believe in the greater good. I believe that the Constitution protects our right not to be discriminated against by government agencies simply because of our race, religion, or for any other reason.

New York Times readers chipped in to the argument in large numbers.

"You argue that the test for firefighter promotions was flawed, and possibly illegal, because different groups achieved widely different results on the test. The standard for determining the validity of such a test should not be that every group pass it at roughly proportionate rates, as you prefer, but that its questions are germane to the positions it was designed for," said Mark Goodburn of New Cannan, Connecticut.

"If a kicker's football fails to reach a goalpost, he does not get a do-over with a shorter distance between him and goalpost. If a student does not pass a test, he does not get a do-over with easier questions. When my house is on fire, I want the best firefighter and I don't care what color he or she is," wrote Carol Pulley of Minnesota.

I can understand the city working to come up with the most bias-free test it can, be that test in written form or a performance test (which, in the case of firefighters and cops might well be a better measure). Once the test is drawn and finalized, however, the results should stand for themselves.

Those who pass get promoted, those who do not, remain on the job in the lower category until they can pass the test.

I have always believed that America now has a level playing field. Access to education is there for anybody who wants it and can handle the rigor of the discipline.

For many, however, that access is not appreciated or accessed. When education is not valued by the family unit, then students do not learn.

When drugs, guns and the hip-hop gangsta culture are valued more than education, you get a large underclass who cannot pass tests and has to rush to catch up once they become adults and realize that the gangsta culture will get them no place but dead or in prison.

Should we make accommodation for people for the greater good? I don't think so, and neither, apparently, do the majority of the Supreme Court.

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