WHEN DID THE NEW HAVEN FIRE DEPT. BECOME A MERITOCRACY?

On day four of the Sotomayor hearings, the focus was on her role in the case of Ricci v. DeStefano, the New Haven firefighter case. “Mr. Ricci has a story to tell, too,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham in a condescending lecture to Sotomayor. Ricci told that story this afternoon.

If you grew up in New Haven, as I did, it's really hard to see this centerpiece of the conservative argument against Sotomayor as some sort of real-world question of moral philosophy about who was most “deserving.” Rather, I suspect that Sotomayor understood perfectly well that this was another episode in a long urban melodrama as various white ethnic groups, Latinos, and blacks struggled for their share of political power and its benefits. If the New Haven Fire Department has become a pure meritocracy in which only the most objectively deserving are hired, that would be quite a revolution.

I've just been rereading Who Governs, a masterpiece of mid-century political science by Yale's Robert A. Dahl, which is basically the tale, told with charts, of the successive rise to power of each of New Haven's major ethnic populations. First the WASP establishment gave way to German immigrants, then the Irish and some Jews; the Irish slowly let in the Italians, and the Italian-American political machine held the reins for decades, against claims by the rising Latino and black populations, which now make up 60 percent of the city. At the time of Dahl's study, Italian-Americans were still working their way up, and they didn't begin to get a foothold in the fire and police departments until the 1950s.

But the story for blacks and Latinos -- particularly the former -- was quite different in New Haven and many other cities. New Haven's only had one black mayor, for four years in the early 1990s. The same is true of New York and Chicago, where blacks never quite achieved the level of political power commensurate with their percentage of the population. Where blacks and Latinos built coalitions, they could win. But as in Chicago and New York, they were split and the older white ethnic power structure remained. In addition to the legal questions, and whether New Haven faced the risk of a disparate-impact suit, this was also a decision by the city -- a political decision -- about how to resolve a decades-long dilemma about equality of opportunity. And the court was right -- both as a matter of law and empathy -- to let the city make that choice.

-- Mark Schmitt

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