Today’s Justice Department seeks to unravel affirmative-action plans that yesterday’s Justice Departments carefully stitched together at police and fire departments across the country. The Reagan Administration has taken the Indianapolis departments into court to try to strike down preferential treatment for minorities and women, showing once again that it has not only misread a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision but that it also misunderstands the determination of many cities to overcome the legacy of discrimination.
The Justice Department says that a decision last year in a Memphis case that layoffs should be based on seniority, not race, can be extended to municipal affirmative-action plans for hiring and promotion. It is dead wrong. To read that decision as having any broader application than layoffs is to indulge in unjustified, not to mention unfeeling, revisionism.
It would be one thing if cities around the country were crying out for relief. From what we can tell, many local governments, including that in Indianapolis, have decided that affirmative-action programs have brought them valuable new recruits and managers and have helped them serve their entire communities better. The city’s chief lawyer, John P. Ryan, said Monday that Indianapolis “is going to argue that the consent decrees be maintained. We’re very happy with the current consent decrees, and we think they work for us.” The Police and Fire Commissions in Los Angeles said the same thing after receiving letters from the Justice Department earlier this year urging that they revise their consent decrees.
The cities that negotiated agreements with previous Justice Departments now understand, if they did not then, that equal opportunity often requires more than equal effort. It is unfortunate that the current Justice Department does not share their good faith and that understanding.