When Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley was told last summer that very few minorities scored well on the city's exam for promotions from police patrolman to sergeant, he did not sound very alarmed. He cheerfully recalled that it had taken him three tries to pass the state bar exam. Those who did poorly should "try harder," he said.
Then, along came the lieutenants' exam and even fewer minorities scored well enough to be promoted -- if the exam was to be the only criterion. Mayor Daley had a change of heart. Now his administration is under fire in a battle that has opened up a new front in the national dispute over affirmative action.
Among the 67 promotions to lieutenant announced on St. Patrick's Day, the mayor and Chicago Police Supt. Matt Rodriguez decided to promote 13 sergeants on the basis of previous job performance, which is called "merit," in addition to their high test scores.
Of the 13, five happen to be white, five happen to be black and three happen to be Hispanic.
James McArdle, a 45-year-old white sergeant who finished 56th out of 765 sergeants who took the exam, filed suit with the backing of the Police Sergeants Association and the Fraternal Order of Police, saying he was unfairly passed over for promotion because of the merit appointments.
Was it a political move by Mayor Daley just before this week's mayoral election?
I suspect the mayor's motives had something to do with civil order, department morale and police-community relations, which go hand in hand. The police force is 66 percent white and 34 percent minority in a city whose population is 39 percent black, 38 percent white and 20 percent Hispanic.
The disgruntled white officers say affirmative action hurts morale, but, whether they realize it, so did earlier systems that discriminated against minorities. Black and Hispanic officers have feelings, too.
Trouble is, despite $5 million spent by the city to develop police promotion tests that would be free of cultural and other biases, last year only five minority candidates ranked in the top 114 who took the exam for promotion from patrol officer to sergeant. And of the top 54 sergeants who took the lieutenants exam, only three were black and none was Hispanic.
So Mr. Daley had to make a choice: Did he just want lieutenants who knew how to pass exams, or did he want a police hierarchy that looked more like the city it was protecting?
Ironically, it's almost enough to make a modern mayor long for the days of patronage. After all, despite more modern stereotypes of Irish cops, for example, there once was a time when it was the Irish who received the short end of the stick of prejudice in big cities like Boston, Chicago and New York. "No Irish need apply," said signs and "help wanted" ads, especially at police departments. Various Irish Americans turned things around in the fabled American way: They got into politics and worked their way up.
Then along came the age of civil service and other reforms. Personal, political picking and choosing is no longer legal. Instead, applicants take tests, a device conceived supposedly to level the playing field.
But then, since the '60s, along comes evidence that the so-called "fair" tests are culturally biased against blacks and Hispanics.
Frankly, as an African-American who took quite a few of those tests in high school and college, I would agree that they most certainly are biased. I also know that biases can be overcome, if you are encouraged to work hard enough at it. Unfortunately, neither Mayor Daley nor the city can wait for the public schools to start turning out bumper crops of stellar black and Hispanic test takers. So they do the next best thing: bold, blatant affirmative action.
That doesn't trouble me. Some qualities of a good lieutenant simply are not that easy to put into an objective written test and, even though the oral test was given "blind," with unseen candidates speaking into a microphone, the evaluators could still hear ethnic nuances in their voices, so charges of ethnic bias continue, the legacy of long-standing racial resentments that will not go away overnight.
Even so, it is important to note that none of the "merit" officers is unqualified to do the job. They simply did not score on the test as high as the top 54 officers did.
Now the lawsuit charges the city changed the rules during the game. Had the city not relied so heavily on the tests, the suing cops would have much less to stand on.
Ah, it's enough to make you miss the days of patronage. Favoritism was easy then. Except then it worked against minorities. Now we have to clean up the mess it left behind.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.