Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I feel Sorry for Ricci

One possible impediment to Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation could be her decision in Ricci vs. DeStefano. It has become a flashpoint in the argument about whether affirmative action is still necessary. Ricci himself has become a cause célèbre for the conservative punditocracy.

Sotomayor may well have been correct in her ruling. That is to say that New Haven’s decision could have been fully within the bounds of the law—something I will not try and determine for this post. But whenever I think about the case I keep coming back to how sorry I feel for Ricci.

His story has gained much attention, but I still think it bears repeating here. Ricci was dyslexic and as such, struggled mightily in high school. When preparing for the exam New Haven was giving to decide whom to promote, Ricci quit his second job and paid $1,000 to have someone read his study material into a tape recorder so he could master it. All his toil paid off when he placed sixth out of 77 candidates when the results came in.

Yet he did not get the promotion even though he clearly deserved it in my opinion. To be sure, that says something about this particular variant of affirmative action. I believe that affirmative action can be justified in trying to craft a diverse workforce and give minorities a second look that ingrained biases—often unintentional—might deny them. But the steps New Haven took were especially drastic. The city simply threw out all of the results because it didn’t get results it liked.

But I have yet to hear any evidence that the test was unfairly biased. If a man like Ricci could do well on it despite his learning disability, it seems fair to expect that a black fireman also had a fair chance on the test. If blacks who had done well on the tests but were passed over for white supervisors because the supervisors didn’t “connect” as well with the blacks or felt that they weren’t a “culture fit,” that would be different. That didn’t happen in this case.

So while New Haven’s decision might have been entirely defensible legally, it seems so profoundly unjust. Regardless of the outcome in the Supreme Court case, I hope New Haven finds away to give Ricci the promotion he has so richly deserved.

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