Thursday, March 05, 2009

Unintended Consequences: Ricci v. DeStefano

By: Matthew Denhart

This past January the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Ricci v. DeStefano acknowledging the need to revisit the legal question of employment testing. The outcome of this case will have huge economic impacts; however, CCAP is most interested in its effect on colleges and the growing gap in college attainment among Americans. Our latest publication, The Law of Unintended Consequences Revisited: The Case of Ricci v. Destefano (available here) argues that upholding the Second Circuit Court's ruling in Ricci would reaffirm the earlier Griggs decision which has contributed to the observed rising cost of college and decreasing economic opportunities for minorities since the 1970s.

The case originates in New Haven, Connecticut where a group of white firefighters sued the city after their results from a test used as a factor in promotion were thrown out. The city feared that since whites tended to score higher on the test, it had created an unintentional disparate racial impact on promotion chances. The 1971 ruling in Griggs v. Duke Power clearly forbids this. However, the firefighters argue such an act constitutes reverse racism and is in violation of their own rights guaranteed under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The central question for the court is whether or not a municipal government can refuse to validate employment tests if they believe the test will disproportionately advantage whites.

Our study presents evidence that shows a growing demand for college after Griggs as employers turned to college degrees as a signaling device of employee competence rather than through testing. Earnings differential data between college and high school graduates backs-up the claim that attaining a college degree has become ever more important since Griggs. Yet, concurrently the price of attending college has grown beyond the rate of growth in inflation and personal income with minorities being those most adversely affected. We argue that this is at least one factor that has increased the gap between whites and minorities in college enrollments and attainment since the 1970s.

Indeed it seems that Griggs has created a consequence for minorities unintended and certainly unwanted by those who initially pushed for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. An affirmation of the lower court's ruling in Ricci would further restrict employment opportunities for minorities and exacerbate the growing divide between America's "haves" and "have-nots."

Matthew Denhart is a Research Associate at CCAP and a student at Ohio University

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