Friday, February 29, 2008

It Isn’t the Merit System That’s “Racist”

Renewed Attacks on the Civil Service Merit System

Without question, standardized tests DO indeed “discriminate,” at least in the truest, or strictest sense of that word. In fact, that’s what they’re designed to do – they “discriminate” against those who are less self-motivated, less prepared and less skilled.

The view that higher standards are arbitrarily better standards is rooted in the view that such standards tend to “weed out” LESSER QUALIFIED applicants, NOT merely UNQUALIFIED ones, and that seems so obvious, as to be self-evident.

It should stand to reason that any employer has a right to the best qualified workforce for its dollar, for that is delivering the consumer the best value for his/her dollar. The pernicious question that some have asked, in attempting to erode the efficacy of higher standards goes, “Is LESSER qualified the same thing as UNQUALIFIED?” That very question insinuates (correctly) that many people who COULD do various jobs are passed over, merely because some others do better on standardized exams that test a specific range of a given array of skills. The question further implies that standardized skills (reading comprehension, basic math, logic questions, special/layout memorizations, etc) do not necessarily prove one candidate “better qualified” than another, especially given that anyone could have a “bad day.” It also cynically implies that anyone who meets the minimum qualifications should be deemed “QUALIFIED” and considered without regard to any abilities beyond that minimum standard. It is this viewpoint that reduces that initial question to; “Why does one have to be THAT smart, THAT strong and THAT determined to do job A?”

And that really is, when you think about it, an invalid question, for the rightful counter question is, “Why doesn’t an employer have the right to hire the BEST qualified applicants and not merely a collection of MINIMALLY qualified ones, despite the fact that those MINIMALLY qualified applicants might also be able to do the job?”

Likewise, the opposition to higher standards, is not really rooted in opposition to the view that higher standards equals a higher quality workforce, BUT instead, that “There’s no proof that the higher quality workforces that such high standards bring about, have not been proven necessary to do the kinds of basic jobs that often “arbitrarily” require them.”

THAT is an absurd proposition, as it’s just as likely, just as valid that, by like token, a given organization has too few one-eyed, epileptics, or too few diabetics with IQs below 80, just as surely as it has too few black males, French females, or Danish midgets amongst its ranks. That kind of irrational proportionalism just doesn’t make any sense.

In fact, the ONLY group mentioned above that standardized tests actually deliberately discriminate against are those with IQs below 80. Sure, a skeptic might ask, “Don’t physical exams geared to people of average height and weight “discriminate against those midgets?”

Well, no, at least not deliberately and since widespread pre-test training is available to everyone, a candidate, who is also a midget, has the capability of preparing for and doing as well on those exams as anyone else.

There’s no question that standardized tests aren’t perfect, BUT, they’re the best we’ve got, in that they DO indeed measure one’s basic skill levels, and so long as the same standards are applied to all, they are in no way, ethnically discriminatory. Moreover, that system was put in place to rid government employment of a pernicious system of patronage, nepotism and cronyism that preceded it.

It’s the same with disproportionate passing rates for various ethnic groups. While there is, as we’d expect, disproportionate passing rates (disparate impact) among all the various ethnic groups, that is not, in and of itself, discriminatory, because it is not an intentional impact of that instrument. In fact, ethnicity and gender should remain NON-factors in such admissions standards.

A few weeks ago, Deputy Chief Paul Mannix wrote a letter to the Chief-Leader newspaper outlining some well-documented questions and concerns about the latest firefighter “written entrance exam,” which was so subjective, so rife with questions having multiple answers, that it amounted to little more than an opinion survey.

He was immediately branded a “racist” by the current President of the Vulcan Society (the black firefighter’s fraternity), firefighter John Coombs.

Ironically enough, according to Richard Steier, editor of the Chief, “The irony is that Firefighter Coombs has agreed with Mr. Mannix's contention that the most-recent Firefighter exam included far too many subjective questions to be a fair determinant of which candidates were best-equipped to be Firefighters. Noting that roughly 45 percent of the 195 questions on the exam had more than one correct answer, the Vulcan Society president said last April, "Answers should be 'a', 'b' or 'c,' not 'maybe.'” He called the test "poorly written" back then and said, "At the last minute things were added that candidates hadn't been told to study for."

Moreover, Chief Mannix seems to abide by one of America’s founding principles, “Equal opportunity (the right to compete under the SAME standards) for ALL, special privilege for NONE.”

Of course real bigots have taken to calling people who adhere to that view “racists,” as in their perversely, bigoted view, not supporting race/gender-preferences is “racist.”

Of course, the term “racism” implies a deliberate and overt racial bigotry and discrimination. Housing discrimination, where whites and blacks are deliberately and wantonly treated differently by realtors is an example of the overt racial bigotry or “racism.”

Disparate impact or disproportionate passing rates, drop-out rates, etc., are NOT examples of “racism.”

As Michael Selmi, a professor at the George Washington University School of Law said, “I think it is...clear that the disparate impact theory was based on two critical mistakes — that the theory would be easier to prove and that it was possible to redefine discrimination purely through legal doctrine. At bottom, that is what the theory sought to do — redefine our concept of discrimination to focus on unequal results."

Adding, “As we know from our lengthy battle over affirmative action, there is no widespread public support for defining equality or discrimination in terms of results or achievements.”

Moreover, the claim that standardized exams “discriminate” against any specific racial/ethnic group is tantamount to racial bigotry, as it implies that that group is unable to compete on an equal level with other groups! THAT view, in and of itself, is inherently bigoted!

Proportionalism (“the proportionate representation of each and every group in every field according to their exact numbers in society) is a ridiculous and impractical goal and arguing in favor of proportionalism to increase the numbers of any specific ethnic group amounts to nothing less than overt racial bigotry.

The facts are that neither rigorous standards nor traditional standardized exams discriminate against any specific ethnic group, or gender. Moreover, disparate impact does NOT prove either ethnic nor gender discrimination, neither overt nor de facto. Every standardized test results in “disparate impact” among virtually EVERY ethnic group – German-Americans differ in their passing rates from Irish-Americans, Hispanic-Americans from Italian-Americans, etc.. Disparate impact is the expected outcome of any standardized test.

To this day, no one has yet to prove that disparate impact is indicative of any verifiable racial/ethnic/gender discrimination. Without question, ALL tests are indeed designed to DISCRIMINATE. They “discriminate” against those who do not prepare as well, and those less able to process and matriculate information. Physical tests “discriminate” against those who either fail to prepare properly or lack certain specific physical attributes that exam is testing (ie. endurance, upper body strength, etc.) and those are very useful, even necessary purposes.

While Chief Coward chose, in an earlier response, to merely mock Chief Mannix, John Coombs upped the ante, in apparently calling for the city to somehow and for some unknown reason, sanction Chief Mannix for daring to oppose race/gender preferences and espouse that ALL applicants be subject to the same rigorous standards. What else could “If the elected officials continue to allow dangerous bigots to be the voice of any department, then those elected officials have failed us all,” be construed to mean?

Is that what firefighter Coombs is calling for, that the city and the FDNY should punish anyone who disagrees with the questionable views of the likes of John Coombs? John Coombs has upped the ante, in apparently calling for the city to somehow and for reasons, apparently known only to John Coombs, sanction Chief Mannix for daring to oppose race/gender preferences and espousing that ALL applicants be subject to the same rigorous standards. What else could “If the elected officials continue to allow dangerous bigots to be the voice of any department, then those elected officials have failed us all,” be construed to mean?

Is that what firefighter Coombs is calling for, that the city and the FDNY should punish anyone who disagrees with the questionable views of the likes of John Coombs? That certainly seems to be the implication of those remarks. So while firmly believing that the government should provide “affordable housing, health-care accessibility, employment...” (none of which are actually Constitutionally mandated, in any way), firefighter Coombs does not have nearly as much faith in say, the First Amendment.

At any rate, in neither case were Chief Mannix’s very real and legitimate concerns addressed and that is almost certainly because they CAN’T be, apparently, at least not by either Chief Coward, nor firefighter Coombs.

But if a past and the present Presidents of the Vulcan Society can’t make the case for lowered standards on a written exam, or how “standardized tests have traditionally discriminated against certain groups,” or that “race/gender preferences are a necessary tool in dealing with past injustices,” then who could be expected to do that?

In response to Chief Mannix merely pointing out a number of very well documented problems with the recent opinion survey/“firefighter entrance exam”, firefighter Coombs’ said, “Those who speak half-truths and lies only do it because they are afraid. They are afraid to openly compete. They are afraid that others will benefit from this career as they have, and mostly they are afraid that they will lose employment to the very people they so dislike.”

Well, first, John Coombs fails to show where ANY of Chief Mannix’s assertions were “lies” or “half truths,” and second, Chief Mannix, like Chief Delbert Coward, Chief Reggie Julius and Chief Augustus Beekman, all black men, passed four promotion exams, each generally requiring over 1,000 hours of study. Chief Mannix has already attained the highest Civil Service rank within the FDNY (Deputy Chief) and he’s done it, like Chief Beekman and Chief Coward did, on exams with extremely high standards. If high standards didn’t adversely impact the likes of Chief Coward, Chief Julius and Chief Beekman, then it would appear that high standards serve as no substantial barrier to black achievement in the FDNY.

Ironically enough, the Civil Service Merit System was put in place to thwart the overt “discrimination” of the rampant nepotism and cronyism of the Tammany Hall years.

Today that system is under attack by modern-day bigots, who are outraged that only certain city agencies “don’t look like the city.” The MTA, the USPS, and the Board of Education “don’t look like the city” either for any number of reasons – some being disproportionately female, some having Hispanics and Asians greatly UNDER-represented, and blacks over-represented.

The problem is NOT with high standards, it’s with people who oppose those standards because, at this moment in time, their own favored group is not performing as well on them as others. Arguing for proportionalism in order to increase the numbers of any specific group amounts to nothing less than overt and disgusting racial bigotry.


Uncle Joe said...

Another great post. My Dad was a firefighter for 30 years. He used to talk about the mandate they had in the early 1980's to hire women. He said not a single woman they hired was able to complete the physical fitness requirements of the job. There was a test where the minimum requirement for applicants was to be able to carry 100 pounds for several yards in a certain amount of time. They had to wave that requirement to be able to hire from their pool of women applicants. I doubt that an unconscious 200 pound man in a burning building would be so enlightened, un-chauvinistic, and equal rights minded when the only person around to haul him out is one of those "qualified" firefighters who couldn't carry 100pounds on a sunny day not to mention out of a burning building. That was the only problem my Dad had with the whole thing. He didn't mind hiring women, he just knew that the ones he had to hire couldn't actually do the job.

JMK said...

Sadly, we've come to eviscerating standards to "achieve diversity."

Here's the thing, it was unquestionably WRONG when the City barred women from even taking the tests for police officer and firefighter, just as the nepotism and cronyism that kept those who either weren't politically connected, or couldn't or wouldn't "pay graft" for their jobs, off those was WRONG.

In fact, the Civil Service Merit System was set up to eradicate the graft, nepotism and cronyism that had dominated Municipal hiring until that time.

But so too is lowering standards to achieve some "ideal gender and ethnic balance" WRONG.

Standards are there for a reason.

It seems just basic common sense that any employer has the RIGHT to hire the best qualified and most productive workforce it can, NOT merely a minimally qualified one and THAT is what much of the three decades long assault on standards and standardized testing is really all about.

Opponenets of tandards and standardized testing often ask, "Is a LESSER qualified candidate really UNQUALIFIED?"

That's, in effect, a nonsensical question.

Standards exist to distinguish between LESSER qualified candidates and better qualified candidates...and employers, whether in the private sector or government, have a right to the best qualified workforce they can get for their hiring dollar.

I believe in outreach and remedial training for those who are motivated to get these jobs, to bring such people "up to snuff," but lowering standards is not only a dangerous game, it's a blatantly unfair one, as well.

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