Hey, did you hear the one about the 12 white guys who brought a lawsuit saying they were being discriminated against? That probably sounds like the opening line of a joke you’d read at Media Matters, but in this case, it’s true. And the dozen white men in question (along with one retired, white lesbian) are police officers. They’re claiming that they are constantly passed over for promotions because of a grading system that was put in place specifically to counter discrimination. If you’re waiting for the punch line, there isn’t one. This is serious. (ABC News)

Twelve white male San Francisco police officers are suing the city, arguing they were passed over for promotions because of their race and gender.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports Wednesday that the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in federal court, is the latest round in a conflict that dates back decades. A 13th plaintiff who is now retired says she also was denied promotion, because she is a white lesbian.

The lawsuit challenges a test-scoring method that the city adopted in 1979 in response to a lawsuit from a group representing black and female officers, who alleged discrimination in hiring and promotions.

The city is using a “banding” system for promotions, in which people with similar scores are grouped into “bands” that are treated as if they all achieved the same score on their advancement testing. In other words, let’s say you took the test and scored 191 out of 200. You might be put in a “band” along with everyone who scored anywhere from 170 to 195. The city claims they do this so that “other factors” can be considered when deciding who gets a promotion.

For the officers involved in this suit, that meant that in 2016 the department promoted three black officers to the rank of sergeant, despite all of them having lower test scores than eleven white officers who took the same test. We might be able to draw a conclusion about what at least some of those “other factors” being considered were.

Initially, I really couldn’t see this lawsuit making it very far. There are plenty of systems around the country where these types of skewed results are found. In few places is this truer than in college admissions. And the courts let it continue anyway, rather than enforcing some type of hard and fast meritocracy. But then we learn that the city was sued for almost the exact same thing in 2003 and wound up settling out of court for $1.6 million, but without admitting any wrongdoing. Perhaps they’ll follow the same strategy this time and write it off as the price of doing business.

Most any time you see able-bodied, straight white males suing for discrimination, the courts toss it out and they are made to be laughing stocks. This is true even when you run across actual cases of bias overriding merit, such as this one. Sadly, I can at least sort of understand the arguments being made in favor of systems like the one in San Francisco. Yes, it would be ideal if everyone was ranked by their own skills and accomplishments (defined by a test score in this case), but the black and Hispanic officers make the argument that they were coming from a more challenged background right from the start and had more to overcome. In many (but not all) cases, that’s likely true and you have to have some sympathy for their situation as well.