The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling that new haven, Conn., violated 20 white and Hispanic firefighters' rights by scrapping a promotions test that few black candidates passed leaves city officials in a bind. Lose the test and you punish those who aced it. Keep it and you risk leaving intact a lack of diversity at the fire department's senior levels.
The case, Ricci v. DeStefano, is renewing debate over affirmative action, not least because it reverses a judgment signed off on by Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. But the controversy over such programs goes back decades. It was President Lyndon Johnson who first attempted to combat inequality with laws taking race, ethnicity and gender into account. In a 1965 speech at Howard University, he argued that one could not expect a person "who, for years, has been hobbled by chains" to be able to compete with everyone else. Since then, supporters have praised the employment and education opportunities affirmative action has given minority candidates, while opponents have blasted it for taking those opportunities away from equally deserving whites.
The court has long walked a fine line on the issue, rolling back some affirmative-action initiatives and supporting others. In 1978 it agreed that race-based quotas in university admissions amounted to "reverse discrimination." And concurring in 1995's Adarand Constructors Inc. v. Peña, which called for "strict scrutiny" in identifying discrimination to justify affirmative-action programs, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that such policies "stamp minorities with a badge of inferiority." Trying to balance competing concerns has tripped up employers and admissions officers for decades. In the wake of the Ricci ruling, it will be even trickier.