Cries of reverse discrimination build to a chorus

A black president tabs a Latina for the Supreme Court. She had made a ruling against white firefighters. That ruling gets reversed by her prospective high-court colleagues.

It was pretty easy to guess what would come up in her confirmation hearings.

America, it seems, isn’t over race after all.

Rather, now the race card is being dealt in every direction.

More and more whites ? weary of a generation of minority racial preferences, fighting for scraps in a feeble economy, feeling the sting of skin color as a disadvantage ? are joining minorities in crying foul.

“The pendulum is swinging where people are challenging things on both sides,” said Denise Drake, a Kansas City employment lawyer. “Everybody is saying, ‘You don’t get to consider race at all.'”

Earlier this month, two of Kansas City’s white budget analysts filed suit against City Manager Wayne Cauthen, who is black, and the city, claiming that age and race discrimination led to the losses of their jobs and the retention of minority workers.

Their attorney accused the city of a “whites need not apply” policy. (Kansas City Mayor Mark Funkhouser and his wife were the subject of a just-settled racial discrimination lawsuit brought by an African-American woman.)

Advocates of affirmative action say that just because a clueless boss sometimes impedes a white guy instead of a minority does not mean the playing field has been leveled.

Yet they see a series of court rulings, most recently in the New Haven, Conn., firefighters case, seemingly chip away at how far an employer can go to overcome generations of discrimination that favored whites over minorities.

To Dennis Egan, who has represented women newscasters in Kansas City in sex-discrimination cases, it is a case of “conservatives all of a sudden back(ing) the issue of discrimination when it happens to be nonminorities forwarding the case.”

In 2007, writing on a case unrelated to employment discrimination, Chief Justice John G. Roberts seemed to signal the Supreme Court’s shift: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Fred L. Pincus, a University of Maryland sociologist who wrote the book “Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth,” argues that systemic racism is still in place.

“People have the mistaken impression that we’re in a post-racial society now that we’ve elected Barack Obama as president,” Pincus said. “In the best of all possible worlds, people should be judged in a colorblind way, but we’re not there yet.”

From 1998 to 2008, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recorded a 45 percent rise in race-based discrimination claims filed by whites. (The agency shuns the term “reverse discrimination.”) Today, complaints from whites of racism make up 10.4 percent of all complaints to the agency, up from 8.5 percent in 1998.

That trend stretches at least back to the case of Allan Bakke, a white medical school applicant who was twice denied entry by the University of California-Davis in the late 1970s. The Supreme Court ultimately faulted the school for shutting Bakke out while it let minorities with lower test scores in.

Bakke’s name has been a rallying cry ever since.

Sure enough, white men, with the notable exception of the U.S. president, still run our world. They dominate Wall Street and Hollywood. They own and run the largest media companies. The U.S. Senate has but one African-American member, although more than a few women.

Yet not all white men run the world, or belong to the right clubs, attend the best schools or have uncles in the executive suite.

And when they feel stiffed in competition with minorities, whites have taken action.

? In 2001, Ford Motor Co. paid $10.5 million to settle two class-action lawsuits filed by older, white men who claimed they had been mistreated by the automakers’ efforts to develop a more diverse work force.

? A Jackson County, Mo., jury in 2005 awarded Sue Gorker $311,600 after deciding that race was a factor in Kansas City School District officials’ decision not to renew her contract as vice principal of Paul Robeson Middle School.

? In 2006, heterosexuals in the gay resort village of Provincetown, Mass., complained that they were taunted as “breeders” and were the targets of flippant accusations of homophobia.

? Clay County, Mo., Assistant Prosecutor Melissa Howard last year won $2.1 million in a jury verdict after she contended she was passed over for a Kansas City judgeship because she was white. She argued that the City Council did not nominate her for the post because it wanted a racial minority to fill the post. The case is under appeal.

? In May, a white woman from Texas filed suit claiming that Hispanic colleagues at an assisted-living center harassed her for not speaking Spanish. The month before, the EEOC brokered a settlement for three white faculty members in a case against Benedict College, a historically black institution in Columbia, S.C.

Mark Jess, a Kansas City lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in three cases of whites claiming racial favoritism, contends that in the same way “old boy” networks hoard business among a mostly white country-club set, urban city halls and school districts can run on a spoils system for minorities.

“I see way too much evidence of people in the majority being discriminated against because of their race,” Jess said.

So did 20 firefighters, most of them white, in New Haven. That city prepared an extensive promotions exam for the department and gave test-takers a detailed idea of what would be covered. When no blacks passed the exam, the city feared being the target of a lawsuit for relying on a test that had a disparate impact on minorities. The city dumped the results.

That inspired a lawsuit from firefighters who had done well on the test. As a federal appeals judge, Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, backed the city. But this summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the city’s action amounted to racial discrimination.

The case was an overdue message that past discrimination against blacks or Hispanics is no justification for policies that put whites at a disadvantage today, said Ward Connerly. His American Civil Rights Institute led the Proposition 209 charge that eliminated race-based preferences in California colleges and state employment.

“What has changed, and it’s been growing, is frustration on the part of whites, especially white males, about remaining silent on what they regard as very unfair,” Connerly said.

Employment law analysts said the court’s ruling requires more careful hiring standards. Some analysts, such as University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor Nancy Levit, said the ruling could unfairly penalize employers that try to diversify their work forces.

“Employers should be free to worry about discriminatory effect” ? shying away from tests that one racial group tends to fail ? “without that worry itself being considered a discriminatory motive,” Levit said.

Others see the conservative majority of the Supreme Court ? which traditionally sides against “activist” opinions that impose moral judgments beyond precedent or constitutional interpretation ? lending a more sympathetic ear to white litigants.

Americans seem to have conflicted views about balancing a desire to overcome discrimination against minorities while protecting the rights of white people. For decades, polls have shown support for policies that improve diversity and overcome past discrimination. But when asked about giving preferences to racial groups, Americans’ support for affirmative action drops quickly.

It has not been a hot-button issue because most people say they have not felt a direct impact from affirmative action. In a Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2007, 5 percent of respondents said they had been helped by affirmative action, 10 percent said they had been hurt by it and 82 percent it said they had not been affected.

“People generally still believe you’re able to improve your lot in life and you’re still able to rise,” said Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst for the American Enterprise Institute. “As long as most people have been able to rise, even though they recognize discrimination might go on, they don’t think too much of it.”

(c) 2009, The Kansas City Star. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.