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Wrestling With Racial Bias, New York Firefighters Resist Reform

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Michelle ChenNew York City’s firefighters have been embroiled in racial and ethnic politics throughout their history, and the Fire Department’s latest civil rights controversy has stoked a political standoff and a hiring freeze.

The FDNY is still reeling from a federal court ruling in August that put firefighters at odds with anti-discrimination law. The judge ruled that the Department’s recent hiring exam was systematically discriminated against Black and Latino candidates.

But to accommodate the need to hire new personnel, the court offered the city the option of initiating an interim hiring process, as long as the procedures were not discriminatory. The city has so far refused. So now, a long line of frustrated aspiring firefighters remain in limbo, denied a fair shake at obtaining a coveted spot in the ranks of New York’s Bravest.

The Center for Constitutional Rights and lawyers representing the Vulcan Society, an association of Black firefighters, accused the FDNY of obstruction:

We had searched for the least disruptive, least discriminatory, and most fair ways to hire this class. Judge Garaufis, rather than forcing any one method on the City, opted to give it the choice to select the method it preferred.  Instead, the City continues to obstruct any efforts at collective resolution and drag its feet when it comes to diversifying the firefighter workforce.

This suit is in some ways the inverse of the famous Ricci v. DeStefano case, in which a group of mostly white firefighters in New Haven sued over the city’s rejection of exam results that might have invited charges of racial discrimination. In New York City, advocates for Black firefighters charged that the city’s exam process effectively imposed racial barriers.

The controversy is especially heated not just because of firefighters’ status as urban folk heroes, but because the bias at play here isn’t blatant racism but a more subtle intransigence that’s embedded in the institution’s cultural mindset.

While the FDNY’s defenders posture themselves as victims of political correctness, the crux of Judge Garaufis’s ruling was fundamentally not about constructing a race-conscious hiring process, but rejecting tests that simply don’t do their job:

The City has not shown that the current examination identifies candidates who will be successful firefighters. Because the test questions do not measure the abilities required for the job of entry-level firefighter, the examination cannot distinguish between qualified and unqualified candidates, or even between more and less qualified candidates…. What the examination does do is screen and rank applicants in a manner that disproportionately excludes black and Hispanic applicants. As a result, hundreds of minority applicants are being denied the opportunity to serve as New York firefighters, for no legitimate or justifiable reason.

The FDNY’s problem is that it can’t really justify why its squad bears so little demographic resemblance to the city it serves. While Blacks and Latinos make up only 4 and 7 percent of the city’s firefighters respectively, the plaintiff’s lawyers point out, “More than half of Los Angeles and Philadelphia’s firefighters, and 40 percent of Boston’s are people of color.”

The only reasonable explanation appears to be a latent tolerance, if not active defense, of an entrenched white majority. Below the surface lies a complex fraternal subculture rooted in the sinewy traditions of Old New York, when fire companies operated more like ethnic gangs than a government agency.

Today, the FDNY may function more or less as part of the city’s vast bureaucracy, but its resistance to court-ordered reform betrays an arrogance grandfathered from an earlier time.  With their refusal to institute an interim hiring process, they’ve apparently decided that for now, they’d rather put up a good fight, than work with the community to figure out a way to sustain its ranks without violating civil rights. Old habits are hard to extinguish.

This article was originally posted on Working In These Times.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Racewire.org. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com

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Zimmer on Ricci

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Mike Zimmer (Loyola), co-author of the leading casebook on employment discrimination and friend of the blog has provided these thoughts on the Supreme Court’s Ricci decision from yesterday.

1. The Holding. The defendants’ decision to not use test results because their use would have meant that no African-American and only two Hispanics, who made up over half of the testtakers, would be promoted was intentional disparate treatment discrimination against the white testtakers who would have been promoted if the test results had been used. That the adverse impact of the test results amounted to a prima facie case of disparate impact discrimination was not a defense to a disparate treatment case unless the employer has a strong basis in evidence to believe that it will be liable for disparate impact discrimination.

2. A Procedurally Unusual Decision. The district court, affirmed by the court of appeals, had granted summary judgment for the defendants. Not only did the Supreme Court reject the summary judgment for the defendants but found that plaintiffs were entitled to summary judgment. That means that the Court found that no material facts existed that would justify a trial. The four slip opinions run a total of 89 pages; 31 pages – 38% of the total — deal with relatively straight forward recitation of facts, most of which are quite constested.  Many more deal with application of facts to law, again with most applications hotly contested. Reading this suggests that the Supreme Court has taken upon itself the role of a trial court.

3. Acting When the Race of Those Affected is Intentional Discrimination. The key factual finding of the Court is that: “All the evidence demonstrates that the City chose not to certify the examination results because of the statistical disparity based on race – i.e., how minority candidates had performed compared to white candidates. . . . Without some other justification, this express, race-based decisionmaking violates Title VII’s command that employers cannot take adverse employment actions because of an individual’s race. . . . [T]he city made its employment decision because of race. The City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.”

Justice Kennedy takes an enormous leap from the first conclusion – that the City acted because it knew the “statistical disparity based on race”—to his second – that it rejected the test “solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.”  In all the pages of factual recitation and application, there is simply no reference to any evidence that the sole cause of the decision was because using the test results would benefit whites. Is there no difference between intending not to disadvantage African-American and Hispanic candidates and intending to discriminate against the white candidates?

When the Civil Service Board made its decision, it only knew what the racial distribution and therefore the potential disparate impact if the test results were used. It did not know the identity of any of the testtakers. Therefore, it appears that an employer conscious knowledge of the race of those affected by its decisions suffices to make out intentional disparate treatment discrimination. This appears to be a tremendous change in the law.  For example, in Justice O’Connor’s concurrence in Price v. Waterhouse, she indicated that, “Race and gender always ‘play a role’ in an employment decision in the benign sense that these are human characteristics of which decisionmakers are aware and may comment on in a perfectly neutral and nondiscriminatory fashion.”

Justice Alito is convinced that, because an important participant in the political process was an African-American preacher, the decision of the CSB was “because of race” as a matter of law. Justice Ginsburg argues that the decision may have been made “because of politics” and not race since the white firefighters and their union were vociferous advocates for using the test. The decision may have been because of race or because of politics or because of some of each. Doesn’t this suggest a factual question that deserves a trial?

4. Should the African-American and Hispanic Testakers Claim Disparate Treatment Discrimination? Suppose that New Haven now uses the results of the tests and promotes some white firefighters. Because the City knew the race of those promoted, was that intentional discrimination against minority testakers who were not promoted? If not, why not? Is using the test results to promote people different from deciding not to use them?

The Supreme Court has been edging toward establishing a color-blind standard for equal protection, see Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1, 127 S.Ct. 2738 (2007) (plurality opinion), and Ricci appears to import that into Title VII. These decisions involve challenges by whites to the use of race in a way that gives advantages to minority group members or, as here, removes an absolute impediment to the advancement of African-Americans and Hispanics. If a color-blind standard can be used by white plaintiffs, why can’t these minority firefighters rely on it?

5. Is Proof of Intent to Discriminate Reduced to Proving the Defendant Knew the Race of the Affected Individuals? Is racial consciousness, when acted upon, the same as acting with an intent to discriminate? If so, Ricci revolutionizes discrimination law. Assume an African-American applies but is rejected for a job after an interview. Does she establish defendant’s liability by getting the defendant’s interviewer to admit that she was conscious of the fact that the plaintiff is black?

6. The Strong Basis in Evidence Justification. In United States v. Board of Educ. of the Township of Piscataway, 91 F.3d 1547 (3rd Cir. 1996) (en banc), cert. dismissed, 522 U.S. 1010 (1997), the court had imported equal protection analysis into Title VII’s treatment of affirmative action. Does the Court’s adoption of the strong basis in evidence test effectively implement that importation?  Only Justice Ginsburg in dissent puts this decision into context with the Title VII affirmative action decisions to criticize this decision. Are these affirmative action decisions in jeopardy now?

7. The “Q” Word Strikes Again. Is the fear that employers would have an incentive to use racial quotas what drives this decision?

8. Why Isn’t There Strong Support for Disparate Impact Liability? The Court concluded that, “The racial adverse impact here was signicant, and . . the City was faced with a prima facie case of disparate-impact liability.” The Court then minimizes what that means: “[A] prima facie case of disparate-impact liability – essentially a threshold showing of a significant statistical disparity and nothing more – is far from a strong basis in evidence that the City would have been liable under Title VII had it certified the results.”  Does this undermine the significance that this prima facie showing shifts both  the burden of proof and of persuasion to the defendant?  Is the Court attempting to reinstate Wards Cove?

9. Was the Test Job-Related and Consistent with Business Necessity as a Matter of Law?  The written examination part of the test asked questions based on the testtakers ability to memorize extensive documents. Under the approach of the EEOC Uniform Test Guidelines as well as professional test standards, what IOS did was to construct a test that was supposedly content validated, i.e., that it was a sample of the job. While IOS supposedly did a job analysis, neither taking written or oral exams were involved in the jobs of lieutenant or captain in the fire department.  Nor is there any indication that memorization and recall of documents played any role at all in the jobs for which the test was to be used. The use of “assessment centers” where testtakers play the role that replicates the actual job can be content validated as job samples. Isn’t there at least a question of fact whether the test that was used was not job-related and not consistent with business necessity?

10. Was Section 703(h) Test Provision Superseded by the 1991 Civil Rights Act? The Court does not address the jurisprudence associated with the test exception in original §703(h). Has the Court decided sub silentio that this provision and its underlying jurisprudence has been repealed when Congress codified disparate impact law in new § 703(k)?

11. Were There No Less Discriminatory Alternatives as a Matter of Law? The record showed alternatives that were less discriminatory – simply altering the ratio of written to oral scores appeared to have reduced discriminatory impact in Bridgeport, using “assessment centers” or altering the “rule of three” to a banding approach – all were alternatives that could have been adopted instead of the test that was used.  The Court appears to assume that, because it was too late to adopt any of these alternatives to resuscitate this test, they could not count as alternatives. But, in fact, the City could consider these precisely because it had decided not to use the results of this test.

12. Should the Minority Testtakers Claim Disparate Impact Discrimination? Assuming the City would now use the test results, should the African-American and Hispanic testtakers bring a disparate impact claim? With the Supreme Court deciding as a matter of law that the test was job-related and consistent with business necessity and that there were no less discriminatory alternatives available, is there anything left to contest?

13. Empathy for Whom? With the statement by President Obama that he seeks to appoint Justices who have empathy, what does Ricci suggest about empathy? Justice Kennedy concluded that, “Examinations like those administered by the City create legitimate expectations on the part of those who took the tests. As is the case with any promotion exam, some of the firefighters here invested substantial time, money, and personal commitment in preparing for the tests. . . . [O]nce [the test process] has been established and employers have made clear their selection criteris, they may not then invalidate the test results, thus upsetting an employee’s legitimate expectation not to be judged on the basis of race.” Nothing in any of the opinions suggest that the employer had committed itself in advance to use the test results no matter what they might be. Is the Court suggesting that the testtakers had some sort of contractual based right to have the test results used? The last part – about expectations concerning race – would appear to undermine such a contractual claim. However, what about the expectations that employers would not use employment practices that cause a disparate impact? Justice Ginsburg puts the context of this case into the larger frame of the longstanding discrimination minority firefighters have faced and the use of the disparate impact theory to attack their exclusion. Doesn’t this decision defeat their expectations in order to satisfy the expectations of the white testtakers?

14. Is This 1989 Redux? It has been twenty years, but has a new conservative majority in the Roberts Court been able to undermine Title VII just as the Rehnquist Court majority did then? Will Justice Ginsburg’s prediction that this decision will not last prove true?  Will this new majority take the step argued by Justice Scalia to embed Ricci in the Constitution by striking down disparate impact analysis as unconstitutional?

About the Author: Mike Zimmer is a law professor at Loyola University Chicago.  One of his main areas of concentration, which includes co-authoring an Aspen casebook, is employment discrimination. He graduated from Marquette Law School, clerked for Judge Fairchild on the 7th Circuit, worked at Foley & Lardner and have taught at a good number of law schools. Zimmer joined the Loyola faculty after 30 years at Seton Hall Law School.

This article originally appeared in Workplace Prof Blog on June 30, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

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Is Sotomayor a Reverse Racist?: Testing the Limits of Tests

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Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor is taking heat for being a member of the three-judge panel in Ricci v. DeStefano, a case filed by seventeen white firefighters and one Latino firefighter who were the top-scorers on a multiple-choice firefighter exam.  The case is currently under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court and has prompted conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to label Judge Sotomayor as a “reverse racist.” 

But, there is good reason to believe that the white and Latino firefighters who sued were not the most qualified for promotion.  In reality, the issue in Ricci is not reverse discrimination against better-qualified white candidates.  It is a question central to the lives of every American, of every race — “Is the person with the highest multiple-choice test score necessarily the most qualified?”

So, in contrast to the typical reverse discrimination case, it is the qualifications of those who filed the lawsuit that are in question. The Ricci oral argument suggests that the justices are likely to split along familiar 5-4 ideological lines, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy as the deciding vote. What has not been made clear in media reports about the case is how different it is from situations where less-qualified minorities benefited from racial preferences.

The reality is that several minority firefighters performed very well on the firefighter exam. Out of more than 100 candidates competing for the seven vacant captain positions and eight open lieutenant positions, Latino firefighters ranked in seventh, eighth and 13th place on the captain list and African American firefighters ranked in 14th, 15th, and 16th place on the lieutenant list. But because of a rule requiring promotions to be doled out in strict rank order, all eight of the lieutenant positions would definitely have gone to whites, who ranked first through 10th on the list, and six of the seven captain positions were likely to go to whites, as well, because they ranked first through sixth.

This is what put New Haven officials between a rock and a hard place or, as Justice David H. Souter said from the bench during oral argument last month, in a “damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation”. The city’s attorney told officials they could be sued by the high-scoring African American and Latino test-takers for violating federal civil rights laws unless they had scientific evidence to show that the white candidates were truly more qualified than the minorities who would be passed over for promotion.  This and other comments made by Justice Souter, the justice whom Judge Sotomayor has been nominated to replace, signal that he, like Sotomayor, views New Haven’s actions as constitutionally valid.  

As a legal matter, employers are prohibited from using tests that have an unjustified racially “discriminatory effect.” It is undisputed that if the list had been certified by city officials, the 2003 promotions would have been so disproportionately white it would have violated federal employment discrimination guidelines. When an employer selects one racial group at higher rates than other racial groups in violation of these guidelines, known as “the four-fifths rule,” members of the adversely affected group have grounds to sue in federal court for race discrimination.

In this case, if minority firefighters had filed a lawsuit, the burden would fall on the city of New Haven to present a scientific justification that the whites who were selected are better qualified than the minority applicants who were not promoted.

Like all standardized tests, the New Haven firefighter multiple-choice test was neither all-powerful nor perfectly precise. The reality is that there is not a clear scientific basis for concluding that the 17 white candidates and one Latino candidate, who were ranked at the top of the lists, were more qualified than the African American and Latino officers who had high scores on the test but ranked slightly lower. As a group of employment testing experts has explained in their own brief to the Supreme Court, the city of New Haven could not prove that ranking in the top-10 of over 70 test-takers means you are truly more qualified than someone who ranked in the top-15.

First, the city did not have a good scientific basis for the amount of weight it placed on the multiple-choice test — 60 percent of a firefighter’s rank on the list. In a neighboring city, Bridgeport, Conn., the fire department only gave the multiple-choice test a 30 percent weighting.

Second, using the lieutenant list as an example, we cannot be certain that the top-10 firefighters (all of whom were white) were more qualified than the top-15 firefighters (two of whom were African American) because the company that made the New Haven firefighter test has admitted that the exam does not measure important skills for the job in question. In fact, it is undisputed that the New Haven firefighter exam was not designed to measure command performance or supervisory skills.

As explained in the Supreme Court brief filed by the employment testing experts, one of the important qualities distinguishing a good fire officer from a good entry-level firefighter is that supervisory officers must have a “steady presence of command so that the unit will follow orders and respond correctly to fire conditions.” Firefighters need “command presence” in order to lead their command units in safely and effectively fighting fires.

Finally, New Haven had reason to believe it might lose a lawsuit filed by minority firefighters because there were less racially discriminatory tests available to identify the firefighters most qualified for promotion. For instance, employment testing experts have found that “assessment centers” — facilities that test firefighters using standardized job-simulation exercises — do a better job than multiple-choice tests of weeding out firefighters who are “book smart, but street dumb.” These centers compare entry-level firefighters based on their ability to do real-world tasks that are typically performed by a firefighter “on the job” instead of comparing how well they answer questions about firefighting on a pencil-and-paper multiple-choice test.

In fact, there is every reason to believe that the firefighters who filed the Ricci lawsuit would not have ranked in the same position on the list had New Haven evaluated firefighters at an assessment center.  In addition to resulting in fewer racial differences in test scores, research shows that the white firefighters who perform best on multiple-choice tests do not always fare as well on tests at assessment centers that simulate real-world firefighting tasks.  In other words, using test scores from assessment centers leads to both to the promotion of greater numbers of minority firefighters and results in the promotion of different, more qualified white firefighters.

Thus, there is a strong argument that promoting firefighters based on their performance in job simulations increases more than racial diversity in the upper ranks of fire departments. It increases public safety.

In most cases challenging standardized testing, the issue is whether test scores were used properly. Here, instead of claiming that the city used a test improperly, firefighters are suing a city for putting a stop to its own improper use of a standardized test. Even in our increasingly test-centered society, this is a striking claim. The city was right to put a halt on promotions because there is no proof that those at the top of the list were more qualified than those firefighters ranked just below them.

About the Author: Kimberly West-Faulcon is a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles. Her most recent research on the legal implications of the psychometric properties of standardized tests, “The River Runs Dry: When Title VI Trumps State Anti-Affirmative Action Laws,” appears in the current volume of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

A version of this op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on May 13, 2009. Reprinted with permission by the author.

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