In what let's hope will prove a landmark decision, the Supreme Court of the United States has decided that all Americans have civil rights -- not just those belonging to certain specified groups. Whereupon said honorable court proceeded to protect those rights. And justice was done. Take that, cynics.
In a case out of New Haven, Conn., a bare majority of the court ruled that a group of firefighters who passed the test for promotion should indeed be promoted.
How remarkable. Especially in these strange times of groupthink and sociospeak.
Openings for captains and lieutenants in New Haven's fire department are limited, but the ones available are now to be filled in due course on the basis of, of all things these strange days, objective criteria. Like scoring high on a test for promotion.
When not enough black firefighters passed the test to suit the city's political movers-and-shakers, they had decided to ignore it. Shades of how the old Jim Crow laws used to work in these Southern latitudes. Only now the colors have been reversed. But the basic proposition has been retained -- that one's place in society, as in old India, stems from caste, not merit. Back in the bad old days, the system was jimmied in favor of the white folks. Or to put it in today's proper racespeak, Caucasians were privileged. But some things don't change: In both instances, the fixers didn't count on the Supreme Court of the United States disrupting their game.
Forgive me if I don't jump up and down in celebration. Deciding that all men are created equal regardless of race by a vote of 5 to 4 wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the Declaration of Independence as the Fourth of July approached. But with this Supreme Court, court, you celebrate even the narrowest victory for clear law and simple justice.
The four dissenters on the court all had their reasons, or rather poor excuses. My favorite ploy was the one used by Her Honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who began her opinion by expressing sympathy for the firefighters whose rights she was about to deny under color of law. She dutifully noted that "the white firefighters who scored high on New Haven's promotional exams understandably attract this court's sympathy."
That's ni-i-i-ce, to quote the phrase of a very large, very black man who was attending a meeting of the Pine Bluff, Ark., school board at a time when America's own caste system was falling apart. He was in town as a representative of the U.S. government -- specifically the Department of Education, if memory serves. It was his job to consider whether the school board's attempt to evade the letter and spirit of the law would result in its losing federal aid. When one of the segs on the school board went on and on about how much he loved black folks and would do nothing to stand in the way of their equal (if decidedly separate) education, Mr. Federal Official just looked at him, expressionless, and let a long silence descend. No doubt to let the sheer hypocrisy of that claim resound in the room.
And then all Mr. Federal Official said, his strong white teeth shining as his smile widened and widened into one great big grin, was: That's ni-i-i-ce. His phrase came back to me after all these years on reading Mrs. Justice Ginsburg's words of sympathy for the firefighters whose rights she was about to gut. That was a long ago, but I haven't forgotten the scene. Or the phrase.
I have to admit that The Hon. Samuel Alito, in his opinion concurring with the majority in this case, came up with as good or perhaps even better response to Justice Ginsburg's sympathy card: " 'Sympathy' is not what petitioners have a right to demand," wrote Justice Alito. "What they have a right to demand is evenhanded enforcement of the law -- of Title VII's prohibition against discrimination based on race. And that is what, until today's decision, has been denied them."
Justice -- and he certainly earned the title with his concurring opinion -- Alito had made his and justice's point.
His words were almost as eloquent as those quotation marks he put around "sympathy." For what good is sympathy without acting on it, words without action, crocodile tears without doing what one can to stand up for those who have been treated unjustly? As these firefighters had been by one court after another till they got to the highest in the land, God bless this honorable court.
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