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Firefighter Case Shows Seamy Side of Racial Politics

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Supreme Court's decision in Ricci v. DeStefano, the case of the New Haven firefighters, was a ringing endorsement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964's ban on racial discrimination and a repudiation of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor's decision in the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. While five justices flatly rejected Sotomayor's ruling, even the four dissenters wouldn't have let stand her ruling allowing the results of a promotion exam to be set aside because no black firefighter had a top score.

Ricci is also something else: a riveting lesson in political sociology, thanks to the concurring opinion by Justice Samuel Alito. It shows how a combination of vote-hungry politicians and local political agitators -- you might call them community organizers -- worked with the approval of elite legal professionals like Sotomayor to employ racial quotas and preferences in defiance of the words of the Civil Rights Act.

One of the chief actors was the Rev. Boise Kimber, a supporter of Mayor John DeStefano. The mayor testified for him as a character witness in a 1996 trial in which he was convicted of stealing prepaid funeral expenses from an elderly woman. DeStefano later appointed Kimber the head of the board of fire commissioners, but Kimber resigned after saying he wouldn't hire certain recruits because "they just have too many vowels in their name."

After the results of the promotion test were announced, showing that 19 white and one Hispanic firefighter qualified for promotion, Kimber called the mayor's chief administrative officer opposing certification of the test results.

The record shows that DeStefano and his appointees went to work, holding secret meetings and concealing their motives, to get the Civil Service Board to decertify the test results. Kimber appeared at a board meeting and made "a loud, minutes-long outburst" and had to be ruled out of order three times.

City officials ignored the inconvenient fact that they had hired an independent and experienced firm -- this is a thriving business -- to draw up a bias-free test and paid a competing firm to draw up another test. Its head testified that the first firm's test was biased without seeing it. The board capitulated and decertified the test. DeStefano was prepared to overrule it if it had gone the other way.

Such is governance these days in a liberal university town. It may remind some of us old enough to remember of the machinations and contrivances of Southern white officials and agitators employed to prevent blacks from registering and voting.

This is the sort of thing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg described in the text as just the workings of politics. Writing in Slate, Yale Law faculty member Emily Bazelon goes further. She laments that the promotion test rewarded memorization and that it favored "'fire buffs' -- guys who read fire suppression manuals on their down time."

She is outraged that a fire department might want to promote firefighters who know more about suppressing fires, rescuing victims and protecting their colleagues rather than simply promote a predetermined number of members of specific racial groups whose self-appointed political spokesmen back the politicians in office.

Bazelon and Sotomayor, who voted to uphold the city's decertification of the promotion test, are typical of liberal elites who are ready to ratify squalid political deals -- and blatant racial discrimination -- in return for the political support and the votes that can be rallied by the likes of Kimber. You supply the numbers on Election Day, and we'll supply the verbiage to put a pretty label on your shenanigans.

Usually the people who are hurt by this are not as sympathetic as Frank Ricci, the dyslexic firefighter who paid a friend $1,000 to read the training manuals and studied hard enough to get the highest score on the test.

But I think we ought to reserve some of our sympathy for the purported beneficiaries of this wretched discrimination, the black firefighters. Their champions -- Kimber and DeStefano, Bazelon and Sotomayor -- are telling them that their way up in life should not be determined by the content of their character or by mastery of their worthy craft, but by the color of their skin. Not by a fair and unbiased test, but by dishonest wire-pulling and threats of political retaliation.

Thanks to Justice Alito, for pulling back the curtain and showing the ugly reality of racial discrimination in America today.

Michael Barone is senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner.

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