08/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Firefighters and the Simmering Race Problem

When you first look at it, the lawsuit brought by eighteen white firefighters against the city of New Haven doesn't seem relevant to everybody's daily life. But it is. The central dispute in the case is over race and how it affects who gets hired, who gets promoted, and why. Let me summarize the facts before looking deeper. We have to look deeper, though, because the stalemate in race relations must be broken somehow.

The case is well known by now. In 2003, the city of New Haven devised a promotion test for their fire department. They thought the test was unbiased, but when the results came in, no black firefighters passed, which meant that no black fireman, however long his experience, could be raised to the rank of lieutenant or captain. (One Latino fireman, who joined the lawsuit, also passed the test.)

It was a classic affirmative action divide but also a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't," as the Supreme Court pointed out last week in its various decisions and dissents. Faced with a possible lawsuit from white firemen if they threw out the test and from black firemen if they didn't, the city canceled all promotions. They got sued anyway, and the Supreme Court, divided 5-4 between the liberal and conservative wing, ruled in favor of the white firefighters. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, said the court, can't be overridden by deciding to do nothing. Now the case has been returned to the lower courts to be retried.

I think all of us should ask, who was right here? Can anyone's conscience be certain? Just last week the Supreme Court was so anxious about racism returning to elections in the South that they refused to release Southern states from special scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act. But this isn't solely a Southern issue. There's a simmering resentment about affirmative action in this country, four decades after the practice, which was meant to be temporary, began.

Looking deeper, I don't think this is a case about racism. It's a case about doubt, impatience, exasperation, and false promises. Everyone wants discrimination to come to an end; everyone acknowledges that the process takes time. But hope and good wishes aren't enough. On the side of the white majority, you can't mandate equality and then live so unequally that black education, housing conditions, and social status are totally unequal. On the black minority's side, you can't ask for special treatment without any end in sight.

What bothers me about the New Haven case isn't that somebody might get treated unfairly, although that's a serious concern, of course. It's the sad fact that no black firemen passed the test. One sees, with a mixture of guilt and sympathy, impatience and resentment, that fifty years of mandated equality has come nowhere near the ideal. Black ghettos are more isolated than ever, with entrenched behaviors ranging from drug peddling, street crime, and hatred of the police, to reverse racism that blocks any significant progress. One sees on the White side a lingering racism, desire to hold on to power, social suspicion, and fear. Barack Obama eloquently addressed this during his campaign speech on race last spring.

The central point of the speech still holds good. Both sides of the color divide have their grievances; both sides are justified; both sides need to get over it with as much good will and honesty as they can muster. The New Haven firefighters case doesn't help, and one can only hope it doesn't incite a wave of discriminatory hiring. (Not just municipalities are affected. This case affects hiring, firing, and promotion in the private sector, too.) The good thing about the case is that it reminds us, not of the racist past, but of the difference between telling minorities that they are equal and making that equality real in everyday life. Closing that gap is something we can't shirk, no matter who wins in court and who loses.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

Deepak Chopra on
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