Saturday, April 25, 2009

High court grapples again with race-based preference policies

(Originally published 4/25/09)

The national tug of war between affirmative action and reverse discrimination wound its way back to the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

The case was filed by 20 New Haven, Conn., firefighters who were among dozens who took oral and written promotional exams for lieutenant and captain positions in the state's second-largest city in 2003.

But when the test results came back, city officials threw them out –- not because no one passed, but because of who didn't: None of the black firefighters and only one Latino who took the exam made the grade.

So ... no one was promoted.

As CNN explains, "at issue is whether the city intentionally discriminated, in violation of both federal law and the Constitution's equal protection clause.

"The high court is being asked to decide whether there is a continued need for special treatment for minorities, or whether enough progress has been made to make existing laws obsolete, especially in a political atmosphere where an African-American occupies the White House."

The Court has staked out differing standards for race-based preference policies, generally protecting them more in higher education than in the workplace. And that is reasonable; profound resource and performance disparities persist along racial lines in America's schools, and the Court provides race-based preference policies to help ensure that every child has a fair shot at the advantages of higher education.

But the workplace isn't school -– and a burning building isn't the grassy quad.

We've all heard stories about public safety agencies that have lowered their standards to achieve racial, ethnic and/or gender diversity in enrollment or employment.

And diversity isn't some feel-good, disposable luxury. Cohesion and confidence follow when the men and women of public safety reflect the community they serve.

The problems occur when those elements -– high standards and pursuit of diversity -– get out of balance. Dropping standards to improve inclusion does a disservice both to the person seeking the position and the community that person seeks to protect: It dismisses the applicant's potential by assuming he simply can't measure up and endangers the community by assuming they don't need him to.

The key to the New Haven case could be the justices' interpretation of a federal civil rights law known as Title VII, which requires employers to ban actions, such as promotion tests, that would have a "disparate impact" on a protected class.

CNN notes that during arguments this week, Justice David Souter observed that a ruling against New Haven could leave city officials stuck in a "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" situation, subject to lawsuits from both minority and majority employees.

This, along with the perpetuation of inequality and discrimination for new generations of Americans, is what happens when government "protects" some groups of its citizens over others.

The Court has a chance in the New Haven case to poke a big hole in the misconception that exacting standards and diversity are incompatible.

I hope, for the sake of safety and equality alike, that they do.

  • This week marks the two-year anniversary of my columns for the Opelika-Auburn News. Thank you to everyone who has written or spoken to me about a piece; I appreciate your comments, whatever your politics. And to all my readers, I know your time is valuable; thank you for spending a few minutes of your Saturday mornings with me.
  • Saturday, April 18, 2009

    Tea parties, dissent and political polarization

    (Originally published 4/18/09)

    You can learn a lot from a tea party.

    Organizers meant the parties, held nationwide on Wednesday, as a visible demonstration of taxpayer anger with massive government spending and mounting federal debt.

    But for me, the lesson was about unity –- and whether this country has any of it left.

    Tea partiers carried all sorts of signs, some witty, some profound.

    But others, including those with slogans rejecting President Obama as this country's leader, were downright disturbing. "Obama is not my president," they read.

    These Americans demonize and reject the leadership of the candidate for whom they did not vote -– ironically, echoing the sentiment of many Democrats throughout President George W. Bush's administration, especially after the 2000 election.

    It's disappointing to me that so many people who lamented that treatment of President Bush are now doing the same to President Obama.

    As I've discussed in this space before, there is a difference between disagreeing with someone politically and disrespecting the office that person holds. Yes, it's true that free speech protects both. But useful political discourse restricts itself to the former.

    Just as disturbing as those signs disowning the president was the media coverage of the tea parties themselves. Cable news anchors peppered their reports with barely-concealed sexual references and a disdain for the participants that they didn't bother to conceal at all.

    And liberals scoff at conservatives' outrage over mainstream media bias.

    How did it come to this?

    It's simple: Americans have forgotten how to respectfully disagree with each other.

    This is partially a function of the way we do elections. We start with two major parties, hold primaries that empower those on the edges of those parties and make it nearly impossible for third-party candidates to gain traction in general elections.

    And we wonder why governing is so contentious and why we have so many disaffected citizens.

    But the polarization of America is also a function of individual Americans who have determined that there is no value or truth in the arguments of those on the other side.

    This is dangerous territory, and not only because they're dead wrong.

    This is the thought process that opens the door for secessionists. Once the mysterious realm reserved only for obscure Alaskan ├╝ber-conservatives and extreme liberals in Vermont, the group was joined this week by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who used a tea party in Austin to remind everyone that the Lone Star State didn't have to stay a part of the USA if it didn't want to.

    But more disturbing than the movement of secession talk into the mainstream were the assents Perry's comments found among Americans left of center: "Let 'em go, and take the rest of the Bible Belt with 'em," one person in a chorus of others wrote.

    What if this had been Lincoln's attitude?

    History has shown us what happens when Americans lose confidence and give up on elections as the ultimate arbiter of ideas.

    But what if the only thing Americans on the left and right can agree on is that our Union isn't worth saving?

    Partisan arrogance is poisoning our people and tearing this country apart.

    Americans, do your nation a favor: Listen to your neighbor. Respect his opinion.

    You'll do your part to save this country, and you just might find that your "enemy" –- your fellow citizen –- can actually be your friend.

    Saturday, April 11, 2009

    Red-light cameras are important tools that save lives

    (Originally published 4/11/09)

    My parents offered plenty of instruction, pointers and tips when I was learning to drive. Most valuable, however: "Never be the first car through an intersection."

    Have you ever counted the cars that run red lights?

    I've counted as many as six at once. But I never thought much about red-light cameras –- never, that is, until Mark Wandall.

    I was living in Florida and working for the state House of Representatives in 2003 when Wandall, a Bradenton resident, left home to go to the store. His wife, Melissa, nine months pregnant with their daughter, stayed behind.

    Mark was killed just a few blocks away by a woman who ran a red light.

    Melissa began a tenacious public awareness campaign to get state lawmakers to allow the cameras.

    Six years later, she's still working on it.

    Red-light running is one of the worst public safety problems in America. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that 800 people are killed and 165,000 are injured every year due to red-light running.

    Eight hundred deaths -– 800 senseless, completely preventable deaths. Eight hundred families who shouldn't be without their loved ones.

    My conservative friends recoil at the very mention of red-light cameras. It's an invasion of privacy, they say; Big Brother lurking on every corner.

    I don't get that. The cameras don't record every car coming through the intersection; they have to be triggered by the offending one. And even then, they can photograph only the license plate.

    But guess what? If you have a driver's license, Big Brother already has an awkward picture of you, anyway.

    Some legal analysts argue that the evidence collected by red-light cameras cannot be used to enforce criminal penalties. They cite the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees the accused the right "to be confronted with the witnesses against him."

    I don't buy it. Red-light cameras function as an extension of law enforcement, as sworn officers would if we had the human and financial resources to put a cop on every corner. They are electronic witnesses -– witnesses whose testimony can't be twisted or swayed.

    And evidence from unmanned surveillance cameras is readily used in criminal proceedings, sometimes as the only supplement to otherwise completely circumstantial cases. No apparent Sixth Amendment violations there.

    In 2006, Miami Herald columnist Larry Lebowitz addressed the "more substantive constitutional concern about due process of law" raised by civil libertarians: Citations are automatically sent to the registered owner of the vehicle -- not necessarily the driver who ran the light.

    Lebowitz noted, "The situation is akin to the citation that public agencies are issuing when drivers run through a tollbooth without a SunPass (an electronic transponder for tolls):" Either pay the fine, or rat out the offender.

    Opponents say cameras are municipal cash cows, advanced by the insurance industry as a way to collect higher premiums (based on tickets) without providing more services.

    So? The result -– safer roads –- is the same.

    Nick Adenhart spent Wednesday night pitching six scoreless innings for the Los Angeles Angels. Adenhart, the Angels' top pitching prospect, had beaten a shoulder injury. At 22, he had a bright future and his whole life ahead of him.

    Six hours later, he was killed by a man who ran a red light.

    Why shouldn't we do everything we can to keep this from happening again?

    Saturday, April 4, 2009

    Political labels convenient, but voters beware

    (Originally published 4/4/09)

    A fellow blogger this week asked readers to list "progressive politicians (or progressive folks who might/should be persuaded to run for office)."

    In reading through the list, though, I found that folks on the list stood for a lot of different things.

    What is a progressive, anyway?

    I had an exchange with another fellow blogger and self-described progressive who tried to define it for me. We both eschew labels, but he used Wikipedia's definition as a jumping-off point:

    "Progressivism is a political and social term that refers to ideologies and movements favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement, or reform, as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are."

    That didn't help much. I know that my friend and I both believe government needs reform, we have different ideas about how to do it. Are we both progressives? For that matter, I don't know of anyone who is completely happy with government as it is. We all want some kind of reform. But we're not all progressives.

    So the key to defining and understanding progressive political thought, then, is to pin down exactly what progressives consider "progress, change, improvement, or reform." Is it a standard set of beliefs and principles, or does it change in relation to the prevailing themes dominating the two major political parties? And what distinguishes a progressive from a liberal?

    My friend responded that for his money, there is a difference between "progressive" and "liberal," with progressives generally placing more emphasis on the pragmatic than the ideological.

    The Progressive, a magazine for the political philosophy of the same name, celebrates its 100th year in 2009. According to its web site, the magazine "has steadfastly opposed corporate power and reckless U.S. interventionism and has championed peace, women's rights, civil rights, civil liberties, a preserved environment, an independent media, and real democracy."

    That's more helpful than the Wiki definition, but you'd still have to define "reckless," "preserved" and "real" to get a firm handle on individual policies progressives could be expected to support.

    "Progressive" is going to be the buzz word of choice for the next few years in Alabama. U.S. Rep. Artur Davis is already embracing the label in his bid to succeed Gov. Bob Riley, and Democratic congressional candidates are likely to follow suit in challenging incumbent Republicans. As I told my progressive friend, I just want to know what those candidates are talking about -- and to know that they know what they're talking about -- when I start seeing their glossy mailers and TV ads.

    And this goes for all political labels. U.S. Rep. Bobby Bright and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, are both Democrats -- but I'm sure the former would take great pains to distinguish his political beliefs from those of the latter. Likewise, there is great variety among Republicans who call themselves "conservative."

    Lastly, consider this: Labels that are misleading now might actually mean more under a true multi-party system. More fragmentation would mean less shading and greater homogenization within those groups.

    But it may not matter. GOP and Democratic legislators don't agree on much, but when it comes to ballot access for third-party candidates, they can be counted on to work together to keep the drawbridge up against the castle.

    How do progressives feel about that?