On June 4, 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced Executive Order 11873, which created the federal government’s first affirmative action program. In his speech at Howard University he said, “But there is a second cause – much more difficult to explain, more deeply grounded, more desperate in its force. It is the devastating heritage of long years of slavery; and a century of oppression, hatred, and injustice” (http://score.rims.k12.ca.us/activity/lbj/lbjspeech.html). In the age of Obama, many folks in the mainstream have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea that some folks are devoid of opportunities. Now the conventional wisdom says, “If Obama did it so can you”. But when you examine racial progress in a broader context it becomes clear that there are stark difference between the “Great Society days of President Johnson and the “Post-racial” Obama era. The recent Ricci v. Destefano case handed down by the Supreme Court has forced us to reconsider Affirmative Action. The case was centered around 17 White and 1 Hispanic fire fighters from New Haven, Connecticut who were denied promotion becausea no Black firefighters scored high enough for promotion to ascend to the lieutenant ranks. Consequently, the city scrapped the exam and did not promote anyone. Was the test racially biased? Or did the Black firefighters just perform poorly?
In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court held that the city of New Haven’s decision to ignore the test results violated Title VII of the Civil rights Act-which prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of color, race, religion, or national origin. Essentially, they found this to be reverse discrimination.If the Black firefighters had the same amount of time to prepare for the exam, and they had the same access to study materials it seems as if the test would’ve been fair. Clearly, everyone has different cultural upbringings but this is true for people of all races. If the firefighters were able to pass all the preliminary exams to reach the point of becoming a firefighter, I would argue that they were highly competent individuals who had the capacity to pass the test. What it boils down to is the question of disparate impact. How do we explain the fact White and Hispanic firefighters were denied something they earned? Is it justified to hamper the progress of an individual in majority group to aid those in a historically marginalized group in th name of diversity?
There are those who proclaim that we live in a post racial era. I beg to differ. Just because something is not racist doesn’t mean it doesn’t have racial implications. The disparities between Blacks and Whites in college attendance rates, incarceration rates, and homeownership rates are stark. However, it would be folly to say that Blacks have not made enormous progress. Today more Blacks than ever are attending college. Moreover, there are more Black professionals and government officials than there were forty years ago. The difference lies in the fact that racism has evolved overtime. Hence, with a different face of racism there must be different programs to reconcile those changes. Ricci v. Destefano is a harbinger of a new discussion on Affirmative Action in the US.