Chicago Sun Times: Why U.S. still needs affirmative action

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*CAIR-Chicago Note: Staff Attorney Kevin Vodak Represented Officer Abraham Yasin pro-bono

It is hard to read the news on any given day without being reminded why affirmative action policies in government hiring and college admissions continue to be necessary and how they benefit society.

A day may come in America when this no longer holds true, in part because affirmative action efforts will have helped create a fairer society for all. But regardless of the color of the man in the White House, we're not there yet.

Consider the plight of Abraham Yasin, a Cook County correctional officer who sued the sheriff's office in 2007, claiming he was being harassed because of his Arab ancestry. A jury on Friday awarded Yasin $200,000 in damages.

Yasin likely would have faced less harassment had there been more Arab Americans in the sheriff's department. He might have found the hostility easier to stand up to and shake off.

But more importantly, the sheriff's office needs officers like Yasin. Every police force is more effective -- more culturally atuned and more trusted -- when it is as racially and ethnically mixed as the community it serves. A fellow named Yasin, we would venture to say, is better equipped to respond to a domestic disturbance at an Arab-American home, for example, than a cop named Kelly.

We had a similar thought as we followed the story of the white police sergeant in Cambridge, Mass., who fell into an ugly confrontation with Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor of African-American studies. We could only wonder if the issue of race might have been neutralized if a black officer had answered the call to check out Gates' house, rather than the white sergeant.

The Cambridge police force is integrated, fortunately, and undoubtedly not by chance. You can bet the cries of racism would have been louder -- and the likelihood of real racism greater -- if this were not so.

This is called progress, for which credit must go to decades of effort across the country to promote diversity in our schools and workplaces, at times by means of formal affirmative action.

As the New York Times reported on Saturday, it was just 40 years ago that our nation's most prestigious universities began aggressively recruiting blacks and Latinos, and those "children of 1969" have formed a new elite of the best and the brightest.

The old Ivy League way of business too often settled for privileged mediocrity. Does anybody believe George W. Bush got into Yale on the basis of merit?

The new way of business opened the door to the likes of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama (Columbia, Princeton, Harvard), Attorney General Eric Holder (Columbia) and Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (Princeton, Yale).

All for the better.

The mistake of many critics of affirmative action is to understand it only as a guilt-driven form of reparations. By that thinking, white people are discriminated against today solely to make up for generations of bias against minorities.

But greater diversity in any setting almost always benefits the nation as a whole.

A diverse police force has tentacles in every corner of a community. A diverse classroom is likely to engage in a more robust and educational discussion of, say, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A diverse Supreme Court can better appreciate the social impact of its decisions.

Where affirmative action goes too far, in our view, is when it trumps every other competing value. That's why we found ourselves in agreement last month with a Supreme Court ruling that white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., had been victims of unfair racial discrimination.

In that case, the City of New Haven had tossed out the results of a promotions test just because no black firefighters and only two Hispanic had scored high enough.

Given that the test was painstakingly crafted to be, if anything, overly fair to minority test-takers, that struck us as flat-out wrong. If a bunch of white guys happened to score highest on a test that had been designed with great input from minorities, then so be it -- promote the white guys.

But was New Haven right in the first place to have designed a promotions process that might favor minorities?

Absolutely.

A racially diverse town is best served by a racially diverse fire department.

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