Monday, June 15, 2009

Sotomayor, New Haven, Affirmative Action, and Ethics

The hubbub over the Sotomayor nomination, and over her support of New Haven's action in the firefighter case, got me thinking about the ethics of affirmative action. It was surely right for New Haven to not base firefighter promotions on a race-biased test, and surely right to grant Mr Ricci, the dyslexic firefighter, a promotion after he had studied hard and passed the exam.

But the city couldn't do both right things. Ethics is more often a struggle between right and right, than a straightforward choice between right and wrong.

My ideal affirmative action is the path the National Football League chose several; years ago. The owners saw that they headed an organization in which most of the players were balck and all the coaches were white. Their solution? They mandated for themselves that they would interview at least one black candidate for every head coaching vacancy.

A virtuous circle ensued: Since they had to interview a black candidate they started to think about who was the best to interview. They found that--in some instances--the black candidate was the best, and they hired him. In the ten years since the policy was implemented the 32 NFL teams have hired ten black coaches.

What's the lesson? Simply that the owners--mostly people of good will--decided that they didn't want to have an organization that was all white at the toop and mostly black at the bottom: it wasn't ethical. And they fixed it with outreach and without lowering their standards or favoring hiring anybody because of race.


Judith Ellis said...

Interesting, Bob. I like that affirmative action is not presented as a slogan here but a worthy action agreed upon by the team. But I'm just wondering if the reverse works too. Choose all black candidates and select one white candidate. I'm wondering how other candidates are chosen in order to get the best coaches? Is there such a selection that seeks to guarantee that no standards are lowered? How are the standards set? Who decides when the standard has not been adhered to? Are such decisions made simply by the numbers?

Bob said...

Sorting out the standards is an impossible task. The problem that existed--as I see it--was that fair-minded people saw that they were choosing only white men, and producing a league with whites in all the top positions, even though black men were most of the best players. They devised a system whereby FAIR-MINDED people would seek to change things, and change they did.

Not perfect, but a lot better than it was. I give 2-1/2 cheers.

Judith Ellis said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of their decision. It's commendable.