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Washington v. Davis

Citation. 426 U.S. 229 (1976)
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Brief Fact Summary.

This case involves the validity of a qualifying test administered to applicants for positions as police officers in the District of Columiba Metropolitan Police Department.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

While the central purpose of the Equal Protection Clause is the prevention of official conduct discriminating on the basis of race, the Court has not embraced the proposition that a law or other official act, without regard to whether it reflects a racially discriminatory purpose, is unconstitutional solely because it has a racially disproportionate impact.


A qualifying test administered to applicants for positions as police officers is used generally throughout the federal service and was developed by the Civil Service Commission to test “verbal ability, vocabulary, reading and comprehension.” The Court of Appeals stated that lack of discriminatory intent in designing and administering the test was irrelevant. The critical fact was that a far greater proportion of blacks – four times as many – failed the test than did whites. The disproportionate impact, standing alone, was held sufficient to establish a constitutional violation, absent proof by petitioners that the test was an adequate measure of job performance in addition to being an indicator of probable success in the training program.


Is the test administered to applicants for positions as police officers is used generally throughout the federal service constitutional where a far greater proportion of blacks failed the test than did whites?


Yes, the test is neutral on its face and rationally serves a purpose the Government is constitutionally empowered to pursue. Despite the differential racial effect of the test, the affirmative efforts of the Metropolitan Police Department to recruit black officers, the changing racial composition of the recruit classes and of the force in general, and the relationship of the test to the training program negated any inference that the Department discriminated on the basis of race or that a police officer disqualifies on the color of his skin rather than ability.


Justice Stevens

Usually the most probative evidence of intent will be objective evidence of what really happened rather than evidence describing the subjective state of mind of the actor. This is particularly true in the case of governmental action which his frequently the product of compromise, of mixed motivation. It is unrealistic, if not impossible, to require the victim of alleged discrimination to uncover the actual subjective intent of the decision-maker or to invalidate otherwise legitimate action simply because an improper motive affected the deliberation of a participant in the decisional process.


It is difficult to understand how a law establishing a racially neutral qualification for employment is nevertheless racially discriminatory and denies any person equal protection of the laws simply because a greater proportion of Blacks fail to qualify than members of other racial or ethnic groups. The test, administered to prospective Government employees, concededly seeks to ascertain whether those who take it have acquired a particular level of verbal skills. It is untenable that the Constitution prevents the Government from seeking modestly to upgrade the communicative abilities of its employees rather than to be satisfied with some lower level of competence, especially where the job requires special ability to communicate orally and in writing. Respondents, as Blacks, could no more successfully claim that the test denied them equal protection than could white applicants who also failed.

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