Courtland Milloy: Supreme Court Got It Wrong on Firefighters Rights

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Here's a question I made up to include on any exam for fire chief, especially in cities with racially troubled fire departments, such as New Haven, Conn., and the District of Columbia:

A truck driven by black firefighters sets out to contain a fire caused by "racial discrimination." Another driven by white firefighters sets out to save "equal opportunity" from the same fire. The two are on a collision course.

Which truck has the right of way? (Hint: It's a trick question.)

The answer is: Both trucks have the right of way.

I'll explain what might seem impossible. But don't worry if you got it wrong.

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the equal opportunity rights of white firefighters in New Haven had been violated when city officials threw out a promotion test on which no African Americans and two Hispanics qualified for advancement.

Black applicants contended that the test was flawed and racially biased and that the testing process was irrelevant to job performance. But their complaints were narrowly rejected by the court. A conservative majority ruled, in effect, that the white truck had the right of way.

Wrong answer.

Had the justices sent the case back to a trial court, the black firefighters would have had a chance to prove that the testing process was discriminatory.

For the most part, questions on job promotion tests are kept secret. Even the Supreme Court was clueless about what was on the New Haven firefighter's test. But let's not kid ourselves. Many of those tests are known to be outdated, and, more often than not, they do not test relevant skills and behavior.

"One question asked something like, 'In what direction would your truck be pointed if you set it up to fight a fire in midtown, uptown and downtown,' " said Gary Tinney, president of the Firebirds, the New Haven chapter of the International Black Professional Fire Fighters Association. Tinney, a lieutenant, was among the blacks who took the test for captain. "That question doesn't apply in New Haven. That comes from a New York Fire Department exam. But that's what you're dealing with: a network of firefighters that mimic each other so much, pass information between themselves. It happens in the good-old-boy network."

Then there's the cheating.

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