Black Firefighters Sue Their Way to Success

But their high-achieving minority colleagues suffer.

If you can’t pass a test, just sue the person giving the test. That’s the harmful approach taken today by some minorities seeking government jobs. In an effort to push people at the bottom up by dragging others down, there is a lawsuit ongoing against New York City’s fire department.

Some blacks have done well on NYC’s firefighter civil service test over the past decade. Some have not. A few who didn’t score well sued the city for discrimination. Consequently, a judge imposed a hiring freeze, and no one got hired. As a result, a black man named David Cargin, who scored a perfect 100 on his test (and almost certainly would have been hired), was not hired. His interests, among others, are being sacrificed for the sake of a few disgruntled individuals.

There is a short list of people who benefit from these suits: people who can’t hack it on a test, their lawyers, and a few affluent and educated sympathizers who don’t have to worry about their jobs being given to someone less qualified.

Take William B. Eimicke of Columbia University’s School of Public and International Affairs. Eimicke, who is white, says, “The reality is the department should look like the city it serves.” This is a hypocritical sentiment, unless Mr. Eimicke plans to give his job away. Of the 70 core faculty members in Mr. Eimicke’s department, there are 3 blacks. 75% of the faculty is white, 4% is black. New York City is 45% white and 27% black. If the faculty “should look like the city it serves,” then Columbia needs to start firing white people fast. Perhaps Mr. Eimicke will place his job on the altar of racial quotas. Or is that a sacrifice he prefers to delegate to middle- and working-class whites?

There are at least four serious problems with this suit: First, it betrays the Civil Rights movement, which insisted that blacks could perform on a level playing field. Second, it reinforces pernicious stereotypes. Third, racial preferences are unfair to those who play by the rules, including high-achieving minorities. Finally, promotion by lawsuit is bad for the organizations forced to lower their standards. At root, these problems arise from liberal ideology, which impacts people early on, beginning with education.

The cycle of educational disempowerment starts this way: Some students have poor study habits. Poor study habits lead to poor performance. Liberals feel bad about that poor performance, and they can’t change the students’ culture, so they lower standards (or change answers on test scores). The coddled, poor performers will one day enter the adult world. When they do, they compete on various standardized tests.

Predictably, those former students won’t pass exams at the same rate or score as others. They will then have an incentive to sue their potential employers when they can’t hack it on tests. They are often successful.

The judge in the firefighter case ruled that the department showed bias in the written exam, which whites passed in higher numbers than blacks. Some might wonder what test scores have to do with discrimination. This lawsuit is based on the theory of disparate impact, which allows a plaintiff to show discrimination by showing that blacks and whites score differently on employment tests. Under that theory, evidence of actual, overt discrimination is not required. Most people intuitively understand the staggering logical flaw in that theory.

There is no basis, in reason or experience, to expect different ethnic groups to have identical test scores. Thomas Sowell has detailed the countless ways in which various ethnic groups have always behaved differently and had disparate outcomes in life, around the world and throughout history. Diverse ethnic groups have different attitudes and habits with regard to many aspects of life, including education. Berkeley Professor John Ogbu (1939-2003), who was black, concluded exactly that in his important work on black student achievement. Ogbu remarked that “black students did not generally work hard.” He wrote, “The amount of time and effort they invested in academic pursuit was neither adequate nor impressive.”

It is absurd to attribute bias to an employer when people of different cultures perform on tests in a statistically predictable manner. It is equally absurd to claim that the fire department “should look like the city it serves.” Bakers don’t need to look like the city they serve. Neither do dentists. The goal of perfectly proportional racial representation is morally empty and logically void. Statistically proportional representation is not necessary, let alone achievable.

Worse, the lawsuits perpetuate stereotypes about black mental ability. As one black civil rights leader recently said, lowering test scores “is a slap in the face to black people.” The heart of the civil rights movement was the belief that blacks, if given a fair chance, can succeed along with everyone else. Civil service exams give that fair chance. These lawsuits show that some people would rather expend energy and time on a lawsuit than study for a test.

The “underrepresented”  students will grow up, and many will perform on adult tests just as they did as students. One response is to lower adult standards, under the same rationale used to “help” children. Dayton, Ohio lowered standards for police recruits to increase the number of black officers. Chesapeake, VA simply eliminated math requirements for police recruits. At least 24 cities and states have endured similar lawsuits since 1990.

Racial preferences are unfair to those who play by the rules, and they weaken the organizations that are forced to employ less-qualified people. Success on a level playing field engenders respect among racial groups. But blatant special preferences only lead to disdain. The firefighter suit represents everything unfair and self-defeating about racial quotas and white guilt.

Often, local governments will cave in to demands just to avoid expensive lawsuits. It’s time for localities to stand up for high standards, even if that means seeking pro bono or reduced-cost legal representation. No community should allow standards to be degraded for the sake of social engineering.