July 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Court Cases

There are two sides to every story, or so the ancient adage tells us. But hardly any story is so straightforward, as every five-year-old and most of our politicians should know by now. Black and white don't exist, only shades of gray...

But in this crazy supposedly-post-racism era, it seems, oddly, that black and white do still exist- and are loaded words, especially in the courtroom.

Take, for example, the two recent court cases surrounding fire department exams, one in New York City and one in New Haven. In the New York City court case, decided on Wednesday in a federal district court, it was ruled that tests used by the Fire Department of New York were discriminatory to minority test-takers; here I quote presiding Judge Nicholas Garaufis: "These examinations unfairly excluded hundreds of qualified people of color from the opportunity to serve as New York City firefighters." The good judge wrote in his ruling that the FDNY was still "monochromatic" even in the face of an overwhelmingly diverse population. And this from the melting pot of America?

On the other hand, the recent Supreme Court case Ricci v. DiStefano concluded with a verdict in New Haven's white firefighters' favor- tests cannot be thrown out simply because the fire department fears lawsuits from minority applicants when the tests yield disproportionate racial results. Incidentally, our new Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor had originally ruled in favor of the tests' dismissal (which makes her situation just that more complicated, especially since she is Hispanic). Also incidentally, Ricci v. DiStefano was a 5-4 decision: five traditionally conservative justices to four traditionally liberal justices (which makes the situation still decidedly old-fashioned in a way-- remember back when the liberals wanted equality for minorities and the conservatives dragged their feet?).

What does this tell us? For one, that accusations of racism have become a double-edged sword; it used to be that minorities were discriminated against in almost all cases (see as an example New Haven). Now, some think that whites are discriminated against, in prevention of discrimination against minorities (take a look at New York).

The race card is definitely not as simple to play as it used to be, that's for sure.

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