Tuesday, June 30, 2009

New Haven – Who Won?

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In view of the Supreme Court decision in the New Haven firefighter case, I’m going to postpone the continued discussion of factual analysis. Instead I’ll discuss the New Haven case while it is still fresh.

The typical news headline in this case is that the white firefighters won. While true, that merely scratches the surface. There are many more winners than just a few firefighters. In fact I would argue that nearly everyone in the U.S., black, white, or any other skin color is a winner and that there are few if any real losers. True, there will be many who complain about loss of what they see as a deserved “helping hand.” However that “helping hand” is counterproductive in the long term.

First on the long list of winners in this case are members of the public who might need help from the fire department. They have more assurance that the commander of any fire-fighting unit will be competent to do his job. The firefighters are likely to be better organized and trained than they would under a less-qualified officer. The person trapped in a house fire or injured in a traffic accident will benefit directly from this improvement. This applies not only to New Haven, but across the country as well.

Second, millions of young people will have greater assurance that their study will pay off as they prepare for the careers of their choice. The New Haven ruling tells government agencies that merit and qualification, not skin color should determine hiring and promotion. It is likely that this non-discrimination will extend to non-government employers as well. This decision is likely to strike a blow against the de facto quota system that has come to exist in this country.

Third, minorities will benefit in at least two ways. First, as hiring and promotion become more merit based there will be less suspicion that the minority employees got their jobs because of skin color. Sadly, many competent people have been tarred with the same brush as those who got their positions as a result of the quota system. Those competent and dedicated employees will be more respected and have more self esteem as the system of preferences dies off.

The second way minorities will benefit is that they will be encouraged to develop their natural talents instead of relying on preferences. I recall the case of a secretary in our department many years ago. She had ability and could have been an excellent employee. Instead she did not apply herself and when threatened with discipline would say in effect, “You can’t fire me, I’m a black woman and you need me for the numbers.” Eventually she left the company, taking her attitude with her. It’s impossible to say for certain how much that attitude had to do with this next but it probably played a factor. Sadly I later saw her picture in the paper, sentenced to jail for dealing drugs.

“But wait,” someone says. “What about the minority firefighters denied promotion? Weren’t they harmed?” I would say that they were not. It is true that they may have had to live on a lower salary than had they been promoted. However salary is not the only or even the most important consideration in job satisfaction. Most people like to feel that they are productive in their employment. Promotions or hiring for preferential reasons militate against that, a person who got his job because of his skin color is unlikely to have the same satisfaction as will someone hired and retained because of his work.

If an employee thinks he can get promoted because of his skin color, he is likely to depend on that skin. However if he is confident that promotions are merit-based, he is likely to work harder and study harder to become more qualified. That will increase his satisfaction with his job and his life. For that reason I maintain that the firefighters who did poorly on the test also will benefit in the long term. They cannot change their skin color but they can change how they work and how they study for the next promotional exam.

It is true that many minorities have suffered discrimination and economic problems in the U.S. and elsewhere. However history shows that those minorities who overcome such problems do so by struggle, hard work, and education. Preferential treatment simply helps them stay in the same situation and thus works against them long term.

As the country follows the New Haven decision, everybody will benefit from the wisdom of the fourteenth amendment. That amendment simply requires that no state “shall deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” As I’ve described in my blog about the Gander Test, New Haven attempted to deny white firefighters the same protection the city would have given to minorities. The Supreme Court decided correctly in this case and we will all benefit from that decision.

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