Commentary, Leadership

The Lesson Has Been Learned, Demonstrated, and Respected

editor’s opinion

Many years ago, a Democrat political operative named James Carville, known for his southern humor and his marriage to Republican operative Mary Matalin, helped elect a president. It was Carville who coined a winning campaign slogan for Bill Clinton: “It’s the economy, stupid”! Old Jim was spot on; that is what folks cared about.

Slogans are words that matter and, to be more clear, “It’s the economy, stupid” wasn’t actually the slogan, but it was what Carville wanted President Clinton and all of his other campaign workers focused on because he understood that was what mattered to the voters: a president who would manage the economy in a way that would make their lives better.

Carville understood what was most important to the individual voter. He knew voters would elect the person who promised to do what they wanted in terms of actions, focus, capabilities, and outcomes. They didn’t care about theories, appearance, age, gender, race, or sexuality. They were concerned about objective capability and performance; the economy was in the tank, and they were hurting.

Friends of ours from the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) whom we admire, enjoy, and generally support recently wrote: “A workforce demographic that mirrors the community makeup helps to build trust with the community and promotes a better understanding by the agency. Make it an organizational priority to recruit, select, and promote members who reflect the demographic makeup of the community they serve.”

They espouse, as have others, that the fire service should physically look like our citizens; doing so, we will be more trusted, more effective. It implies that people only want service from those who physically look like them and that only those who look alike can understand one another. This implies that we are hopelessly tribalist or, worse, racist and bigoted. We disagree. If we try to “mirror” racial demographics, aren’t we encouraging hateful segregation and discrimination? Aren’t we doing a clear injustice to capable persons who don’t meet the quotas, who don’t fit in the demographic mirror?

Our immutable characteristics are things one can’t control—sex, race, and place of birth being the top contenders. Selecting or promoting someone based on these things is simply wrong. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” It is content of character or merit on which all reward rests—not one’s race, sex, heredity, or lineage.

Our friends at the CPSE have the very best of intentions always, and we agree we should do as much as we can to recruit those who may not now be joining our ranks for a wide variety of reasons. But, other than recruitment, no, we adamantly support the Civil Rights Act and Title VII: Statutory protection against employment discrimination.

According to Title VII, an employer may not “fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race.” Additionally, an employer may not “limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race.”

Having a workforce that reflects a community sounds like a fine goal, and it may happen organically with time, but having a workforce that is highly capable, dedicated, and deeply respectful of the community is what matters most. Quotas and mirroring origins are rooted in “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and the destructive result is doubt.

Dr. Glenn Loury, commenting on Herbert Storing’s The School of Slavery: A Reconsideration of Booker T. Washington, explains the lesson: Quotas create doubt, doubt in the minds of those outside the scope of the effort and doubt within the very minds of those who benefit from the effort.

The lesson is, according to Loury, “The only path to equality is dispelling the doubt by objective performance.” In the fire service, that has been done; there is no doubt about anyone. We do not need to keep repeating failed unjust efforts. The doubts have been erased; the price has been paid. Person of color, women, and every other aspect that makes us unique—origin, sexual preference—have served honorably, nobly, and heroically. Now, to be clear, we all have different capabilities, but the fundamental capability to be a firefighter is in everyone irrespective of any immutable characteristic.

This is not to say we should not be inclusive or welcoming, and we should strive to do better in some places. But to justify discrimination against anyone as a tool to achieve diversity is wrong. Again, to quote Dr. King, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” So whenever, despite the best of intentions, you favor one group, you disfavor or discriminate against another.

American firefighters do not judge anyone collectively—all men or all women, all whites or all blacks, or all anyone. We judge everyone as a unique individual—no association, no heredity or immutable characteristic should be considered.

Our fellow Americans don’t care what we look like when we show up. They want us to be effective in solving the problem, empathic to their concerns, respectful of their humanity, and kind. Those capabilities transcend all races, sexes, and all other things that make us look different. “It’s the capabilities, friends!”

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