Should Race Matter?

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The U.S. Supreme Court put the Clinton administration on the spot in January when it asked for its views on the much-debated case of a New Jersey school board that weighed race in a teacher-layoff decision.

The justices have not yet decided whether they will review the case involving the decision by the Piscataway school board to lay off a white teacher over an equally qualified black teacher in the name of racial diversity. But the court's request "means to me that they are seriously considering it," says David Rubin, the school board's lawyer.

The case involves the board's decision in 1989 to lay off Sharon Taxman, a business teacher at Piscataway High School, instead of Debra Williams. The board said it had to eliminate one position in the business department because of an enrollment dip. Faced with choosing between two teachers with similar qualifications and equal service, the board elected to keep Williams. She was the only black teacher in the 10-member business department.

The Justice Department under President Bush took up the white teacher's case, arguing that her layoff solely on the basis of race was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A federal district judge agreed in a 1993 ruling.

The case sparked debate in 1994 when, under the Clinton administration, the government switched positions. The Justice Department sought to defend race-based employment decisions designed to promote diversity. But the appellate court rejected that line of thinking, ruling last August that the board's decision violated Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and several other factors.

The Supreme Court's recent request for a brief on the matter could cause further internal debate in the Clinton administration over affirmative action. Deval Patrick, the assistant attorney general for civil rights who ordered the administration's change of position, left the Justice Department in January. Department officials would not comment on the case. The brief would speak for itself, they said.

Taxman was rehired by the Piscataway district in 1992.


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