Last week, I watched with the throngs on the mall as Barack Obama stood on the steps of the Capitol and became president of the United States. The significance of the day — enhanced by its juxtaposition to Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the symbolism of the many inauguration-related events — was lost on no one.
The inaugural address, though, made little reference to Obama’s historic ascent, focusing instead on American perseverance and ability to overcome hardship. And it was in this vein that he spoke of “civil war and segregation” as the “dark chapter” from which we have “emerged.”
But the statement overreached: We have come far as a nation, and in electing Obama we have progressed probably further than we have ever been, but the “dark chapter” and its lingering effects are not only something of our past. Racial animus still exists in this country, though it might take a controversy to bring it out. Look no further than our fair Elm City.
Eleven days before Obama took office, the Supreme Court granted certiorari for consolidated cases Ricci v. DeStefano, a lawsuit alleging reverse discrimination. The petitioners, a group of one Hispanic and 19 white firefighters known as the New Haven 20, sued the city after its Civil Service Commission failed to certify the results of two exams in 2004. After a series of public hearings, the CSC decided (in a 2-2 vote where a clear majority is needed to certify) that these written exams, which were to determine eligibility for promotion to captain or lieutenant, discriminated against minority applicants because 14 of the top 15 scorers were white. Allegations that the CSC had decided to throw out the results for reasons of political expedience emerged almost immediately.
The scene has only become nastier of late. For instance, the New Haven 20’s Web site now explicitly claims that the CSC, which is DeStefano-appointed and -run, made its decision because “a small group of disgruntled black applicants who failed the exams had strong ties to city hall [sic] and to the politically powerful black chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners, the Rev. Boise Kimber … a known supporter of and minority vote-getter for New Haven’s Mayor John DeStefano Jr.” (It almost goes without saying that in a minority-majority city like New Haven, the minority vote plays a crucial role.) The 20 also personally attack the reverend, claiming “Kimber has the mayor’s ear and gets powerful appointments despite being a convicted embezzler and perjurer.”
Admittedly, the courts haven’t helped. Instead, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s decision to affirm the District Court’s summary judgment in favor of the City of New Haven with little explanation (it has only one substantive paragraph) has only exacerbated the situation by giving supporters of the 20 another reason to cry foul. Moreover, the subsequent refusal of an en banc appeal by a 7-6 vote added an element of liberal-conservative justice controversy, as all seven members of the majority were Clinton appointees, and created a per curium opinion allowing it to be cited as precedent, which just further upset the appellants.
But the case extends beyond the New Haven 20. The New Haven chapter of the firefighters union, Local 825, responded to the CSC decision by putting to a vote whether the union should use its funds to support the 20. Gary Tinney, the president of the Firebirds (the local chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, of which many black firefighters are members), said at a meeting of the NAACP of Greater New Haven on Jan. 15, “It was blacks on one side, and whites on the other.” The whites won, and the Firebirds are suing. It probably didn’t help that Local 825 also decided to sue the city on grounds similar to those of the New Haven 20, although their case was later dismissed on a technicality.
Racial tensions are running pretty high in and around New Haven right now. With the Supreme Court’s announcement, the NAACP stepped in on New Haven’s behalf. The Firebirds are also poised to sue the City of Hamden for discriminatory hiring practices, though the case is unrelated to Ricci. And then there are the blogs. Paul Bass’s Jan. 16 story in The New Haven Independent about the NAACP’s announcement has received 48 comments, including ones that read: “Black firemen want to dumb down the test to a subjective oral exam and excuse chronic poor performance because of the color of their skin” and “[The firefighters who didn’t score high enough] all probably scored low on their entrance exams into the FD but got hired because of Affirmative Action lowering the standards for them.”
While the Supreme Court will decide the fates of the New Haven 20, and with them the fates of many Civil Service Examinations, and, likely, affirmative action programs this spring, their verdict will become just one part of the discussion about race today in America. It won’t bring a conclusion.
It’s issues like this that, in the words of our current president last spring, “reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” So, while we’ve come a long way by putting a black man with the middle name Hussein in the White House, we haven’t “emerged” just yet.
Sarah Nutman is a sophomore in Trumbull College.