The XX Factor

From Washington to New Haven, the Rules They Are A-Changin’

The plaintiffs in the hotly contested affirmative action case Ricci v. DeStefano stood out among the crowd outside New Haven City Hall today. They wore dress blues and wide smiles or poker-faces that occasionally cracked into grins. They were, but for one, white, and they were celebrating their win in a 5-4 decision handed down by a sharply divided Supreme Court.

Mingling on the sidewalk before the conference, plaintiff Frank Ricci posed for photos with his family. Ben Vargas, the one Hispanic amongst the 18 plaintiffs, grinned beneath his sunglasses and crisp peaked cap. Attorney Karen Torre, surrounded by her clients and jokingly donning one of their caps, delivered a statement in boldly Obama-esque fashion: “We had the audacity of hope-that some court at some point would enforce the letter and spirit of the civil rights laws, accord to firefighters the recognition and respect that they deserve, and reject attempts to lower professional standards of competence for the sake of identity politics.”

It took some audacity indeed to invoke Obama in support of a lawsuit that called into question the country’s most significant civil rights statutes. At a podium in the City Hall foyer, defendant and Mayor John DeStefano lamented the Court’s stance on equal opportunity when he declared this morning’s decision “a continual erosion of civil rights law by the Supreme Court.”

By choosing to hear the case, the Court placed the question of race-influenced hiring decisions back on the table. In an opinion written by Justice Kennedy, the majority decided that “the City made its employment decision because of race. The City rejected the test results solely because the higher scoring candidates were white.” If the city had rejected the results because the exams were poorly constructed or because there was a less discriminatory alternative-see Justice Ginsburg’s dissent for an argument that they were, and there is-then the court might have ruled differently. But scratching test results solely because city officials did not like the complexion of the top scorers, Kennedy argued, “is antithetical to the notion of a workplace where individuals are guaranteed equal opportunity regardless of race.”

Lieutenant Danny Stratton, who’s currently being considered for captain in the Camden, New Jersey Fire Department (see part one of our previous Ricci series for Camden’s own history of racial tension in its firehouses) and who came to New Haven today to show support for the Ricci plaintiffs, explained that diversity plays a big role in his department’s hiring decisions. “But it doesn’t guarantee you’ve got the top guy for the job,” he said. Like Stratton, Max Schneeman is a Camden lieutenant waiting for a promotion to captain. He’d taken the test, he told me, and is part of his own lawsuit. I assumed he meant a reverse discrimination suit similar to Ricci, but Schneeman quickly clammed up, crossing his arms and turning away, his eyes shielded by reflective sunglasses.

DeStefano acknowleged the divisive nature of the case, noting the views of both firefighters like Stratton and Schneeman, but also of those who were conspicuously not present-the minority firefighters. “I have no doubt that there is a set of firefighters who feel that they’ve played by the rules and who feel justified right now,” the mayor said. “And that there’s another group who feel like the rules are stacked against them and that as soon as they start to get ahead, the rules change.”

I kept thinking about the black firefighters I’ve been talking to over the past few weeks, none of whom I saw at the press conference. After decades and decades of lawsuits founded upon civil rights statutes, they have started to get ahead. Blacks and Hispanics, who make up about 60 percent of New Haven’s population, are now more or less proportionally represented within the rank and file of the city’s fire department. But their efforts to penetrate the upper management ranks have been less fruitful. Currently, only one of the city’s 21 fire captains is African-American. The anti-discrimination laws that once won them spots in New Haven’s firehouses are now the laws that have planted the smiles on Frank Ricci’s and Ben Vargas’ faces. There go the rules, changing again.

Photograph of Frank Ricci by Nicole Allan.