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Does the Secret Service practice race discrimination in promotions?

A group of African-American agents claims it can prove that between 1995 and 2005, the U.S. Secret Service engaged in race discrimination — knowingly or unknowingly — by using a candidate evaluation program that tended to limit the promotion of African Americans. Eight current and former agents have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, which was responsible for the program, and this week a federal judge approved their request to certify the lawsuit as a class action.

The case may come down to a massive battle between competing statistical models. According to DHS, its statistical models show that African-American agents do not face discrimination due to the program, which is called the Secret Service Special Agent Merit Promotion Program. According to the government, its statistics show:

  • African-American agents’ scores through the program are similar to those of other agents.
  • African-American agents are promoted at similar rates to other agents.
  • African-Americans actually tend to receive promotions earlier in their careers than others.

“This evidence conclusively refutes plaintiffs’ overarching claim that the Secret Service has refused to eliminate racism from the fabric of its promotion process,” the department said in a Jan. 2012 court filing in the case.

The plaintiffs hired their own statistician, who has a sharply different view. He performed three different statistical analyses, all of which demonstrate that the candidate evaluation program had a statistically significant adverse impact on African-American SAs” (special agents). This adverse impact, the plaintiffs claim, is proof of systemic race discrimination.

The plaintiffs’ expert witness has testified in numerous other cases, holds a doctorate in Statistics and is the president of a statistical consulting firm. Nevertheless, DHS moved to have the testimony of the plaintiffs’ expert excluded as “unreliable and irrelevant,” essentially because he used different statistical models than their own — and theirs is better. The judge refused to do so.

Now that the class action has been certified, the case will move toward settlement or trial. Which side’s statistician will win the battle remains to be seen.

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