Among all the responses this week to the controversial Ricci v. DeStefano Supreme Court ruling, I have yet to see a commentator mention what impact the Obama presidency may have had on the justices' ruling. Supreme Court justices, like other people, do not operate in a vacuum. Was the ruling wrong?
In my humble opinion, yes, but also somewhat inevitable now that America has elected a president of color.
White males such as the firefighters in the Ricci case need no racial preferences to succeed in certain industries where the absence of women and persons of color is so manifest it is glaring. But if fire department chiefs can make the claim that American voters are now race-blind enough to have elected a black president, that increases credibility for their argument that New Haven's promotion process should be colorblind as well.
One New York Times online commentator noted that "Justice Kennedy's aggressive reading of the record, coupled with Justice Alito's concurring opinion suggests that the court is impatient with what it perceives to be race-based politics."
There's good reason to be tired of race-based politics if one remembers that President Kennedy coined the term "affirmative action" almost 50 years ago as a "temporary remedy" for discrimination. But there's every reason to understand why affirmative action should stand, if one considers historian Roger Wilkins's 1995 quote, "Blacks have a 375-year history on this continent: 245 involving slavery, 100 involving legalized discrimination, and only 30 involving anything else."
The Supreme Court decision is unfortunate and will make it much tougher for future plaintiffs to win claims of discriminatory test-based promotion. Discrimination claims are already incredibly difficult to win.
Has race bias disappeared from the workplace? Hardly! The same is true for gender bias. But with President Obama in the White House, opponents of affirmative action who claim America is a colorblind society do so with much greater credibility than when Ronald Reagan first started making that claim in the 1980s.
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By Bonnie Erbe