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Ruling On Firefighters Tests Tensions In New Haven

A recent Supreme Court decision in a case involving firefighters in New Haven, Conn., has become the center of a spirited debate about the legality of anti-discriminatory employment practices.

Monday, the high court ruled 5-4 in Ricci v. DeStefano that a group comprising majority white firefighters — and one Hispanic — had been discriminated against when the city threw out a 2003 lieutenants' promotion exam after African-American firefighters scored lower than required.

The higher-scoring firefighters called the decision unfair and likened it to so-called reverse discrimination.

On a national level, Ricci has been carefully scrutinized, in part, because Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor — who has been criticized for past remarks suggesting that being Latina could influence her decision-making — ruled on the case in its early stages while serving as a federal appeals judge.

Monday's decision overturns Sotomayor's earlier ruling.

But the high court decision could have deeper implications for the city of New Haven, where matters of race and politics are already tricky.

In a recent interview with NPR's Tell Me More, journalist Paul Bass, editor of The New Haven Independent, says that elite political and social circles in the city are also enablers of racial division. And that division finds its way into city agencies.

"There's a history of racial tension in the fire department, in the police department," explains Bass. "There's also, just as importantly, ethnic tension and political tension."

Bass cites as an example the politically savvy but delicate relationship between the city's white Democratic mayor, John DeStefano, and the African-American community (40 percent of city residents), which is largely Democratic. But many of the city's power brokers are white and have different interests. Among that group are several white firefighters, he explains.

So how has Ricci affected race relations in New Haven?

Bass reports particular tensions in the town between blacks and Hispanics, one of whom was the only nonwhite firefighter to score higher on the exam and who was part of the complaint that brought the case before the Supreme Court.

"Black and Latino firefighters are splitting," says Bass, and the division has overpowered sentiments from leaders within both groups who once said their common interests as minorities made for natural partnerships.

And the fallout has been obvious.

"Not a single Latino firefighter in New Haven would back the black firefighters in this case," says Bass.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.