Days Black People Not Re-Enslaved By Trump

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Why The New Haven Decision is Good for Black Folk

I don't know about you, "you" being other black readers, but I cannot stand when people assume that because I'm black that I:

Grew up poor: I did but that's not really relevant.
Play Basketball: I don't.
Can Dance...Like MJ: I Don't. I "rent a tile" as a friend of mine put it.
Have a big extremity: Well, I don't want to brag...
Don't know what I'm doing: I'm a genius don't you know?

That last point is something I've had to deal with a number of times. I have had many instances where people simply assumed they knew more than I did on a particular thing with no other apparent reason being that I was black. I kid you not. Whether it's having my employment credentials questioned or a particular point of fact on a subject. To the look of surprise I get when I'm met, cause the "voice" didn't match the face. And this goes beyond the ever present: He's here because we needed a black face, attitude that many a black person can attest to. It's as if there is a biological blind spot that certain people have when there are clearly incompetent white people employed and who think they are The Shit (tm).

Anyway, the point being that as Dr. Bill Cosby pointed out a few years ago, people like to drape a number of negative associations with black people and then pander to them based on these associations. One of the most pernicious and insulting one is that black people can't do well on tests, particularly written exams. And I say "can't" because "cannot" denotes dome kind of innate ability rather than something that is acquired or the result of some mutable external influence, This is truly at the heart of the New Haven case. If you look at all the information presented there, you will note a couple of things:

1) The City of New Haven went to great lengths to make a "fair" test. From the decision:

After reviewing bids from various consultants, the City
hired Industrial/Organizational Solutions, Inc. (IOS) to
develop and administer the examinations, at a cost to the
City of $100,000. IOS is an Illinois company that special-
izes in designing entry-level and promotional examina-
tions for fire and police departments. In order to fit the
examinations to the New Haven Department, IOS began
the test-design process by performing job analyses to
identify the tasks, knowledge, skills, and abilities that are
essential for the lieutenant and captain positions. IOS
representatives interviewed incumbent captains and
lieutenants and their supervisors. They rode with and
observed other on-duty officers. Using information from
those interviews and ride-alongs, IOS wrote job-analysis
questionnaires and administered them to most of the
incumbent battalion chiefs, captains, and lieutenants in
the Department. At every stage of the job analyses, IOS,
by deliberate choice, oversampled minority firefighters to
ensure that the results—which IOS would use to develop
the examinations—would not unintentionally favor white
With the job-analysis information in hand, IOS devel-
oped the written examinations to measure the candidates’
job-related knowledge. For each test, IOS compiled a list
of training manuals, Department procedures, and other
materials to use as sources for the test questions. IOS
presented the proposed sources to the New Haven fire
chief and assistant fire chief for their approval. Then,
using the approved sources, IOS drafted a multiple-choice
test for each position. Each test had 100 questions, as
required by CSB rules, and was written below a 10th-
grade reading level. After IOS prepared the tests, the City
opened a 3-month study period. It gave candidates a list
that identified the source material for the questions, in-
cluding the specific chapters from which the questions
were taken.
IOS developed the oral examinations as well. These
concentrated on job skills and abilities. Using the job-
analysis information, IOS wrote hypothetical situations to
test incident-command skills, firefighting tactics, interper-
sonal skills, leadership, and management ability, among
other things. Candidates would be presented with these
hypotheticals and asked to respond before a panel of three
IOS assembled a pool of 30 assessors who were superior
in rank to the positions being tested. At the City’s insis-
tence (because of controversy surrounding previous ex-
aminations), all the assessors came from outside Connecti-
cut. IOS submitted the assessors’ resumes to City officials
for approval. They were battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs,
and chiefs from departments of similar sizes to New Ha-
ven’s throughout the country. Sixty-six percent of the
panelists were minorities, and each of the nine three-
member assessment panels contained two minority mem-
bers. IOS trained the panelists for several hours on the
day before it administered the examinations, teaching
them how to score the candidates’ responses consistently
using checklists of desired criteria.

So let's summarize here:

a) To qualify for either captain or lieutenant one had to have a High School diploma but the test was written to a 10th grade reading level. In other words, sitting in that exam, the words used were at least three levels of education lower than the minimum requirement to be promoted. Yet there are people who, with a straight face, want to claim that there is something inherently unfair with expecting black folk to do well on such an exam. Instead grown black men ought to be given a chance to "demonstrate" their abilities by acting out scenarios. Clearly they are not expected to be able to imagine scenarios and imagine and translate that imagining into intelligible speech or writing like other people the world over. The old form of that argument was when teachers told Jr. that it was cute that he wanted to be an engineer but he should learn to "work with his hands."

b) The City of New Haven gave all the candidates a list of the source material for the questions including the specific chapters from which the questions would be taken. One witness testified that the books were either too expensive (~$500) and/or that the books were on back order and not available until about a month before the test. Furthermore that white firefighters were able to obtain books from family members who already had the source material. Now I would agree that this would be a particularly troublesome situation. However, the City, to my knowledge did not make such a claim when it tossed the test. Had the city said that the preparatory material was not available to all candidates and therefore those without the material were at a clear disadvantage to those who did have access to the material and had tossed the exam out on those grounds, I believe that they may have prevailed. So the question would be, how many of the black firefighters had access to the material? Did the Latino that made a high enough grade to be considered for immediate promotion have access to this material? These are valid questions which apparently were not addressed. And in the court, the argument not made is the argument not considered.

c) The panelists for the oral portions were specifically set up so that "minorities" were the majority of the panelists. Though it is now documented by the Academy of Management Journal, that "minorities" also have a tendency to rate white males higher on various scales of competence even when there is no difference in behavior, the odds are wildly against the results that occurred here. Furthermore; the city had gone out of its way to avoid problems from earlier exams by having panelists from outside the state who were of higher rank than those the tests were a screen for.

So we have to note that overall the city of New Haven made an extraordinary attempt to make an exam that fell within the collective agreement with the firefighters union and that went to address issues from the previous exam. Therefore on it's face the city had covered it's bases in terms of Title VII.

2) The results:

Candidates took the examinations in November and
December 2003. Seventy-seven candidates completed the
lieutenant examination—43 whites, 19 blacks, and 15
Hispanics. Of those, 34 candidates passed—25 whites, 6
blacks, and 3 Hispanics. 554 F. Supp. 2d, at 145. Eight
lieutenant positions were vacant at the time of the exami-
nation. As the rule of three operated, this meant that the
top 10 candidates were eligible for an immediate promo-
tion to lieutenant. All 10 were white. Ibid. Subsequent
vacancies would have allowed at least 3 black candidates
to be considered for promotion to lieutenant.

Forty-one candidates completed the captain examina-
tion—25 whites, 8 blacks, and 8 Hispanics. Of those, 22
candidates passed—16 whites, 3 blacks, and 3 Hispanics.
Ibid. Seven captain positions were vacant at the time of
the examination. Under the rule of three, 9 candidates
were eligible for an immediate promotion to captain—7
whites and 2 Hispanics. Ibid.
[emphasis mine]

You'll note in Ginsberg's dissent, she felt that the petitioners did not have a "right" to promotions. The highlighted text shows that 3 blacks who had passed the exam would have been considered for promotions for lieutenant the next time the position opened up. This is, in my view, significant. It is clear that there was a desired outcome (at least one black person in the "immediate promotion" group) and therefore an assumption that some black person has a "right" to promotion. After all, at least three blacks would have been promoted between the time of the exam and the SCOTUS decision yesterday (that assumes three lieutenant positions opened up). It is clear that had at least one black candidate existed then the court case would not exist. In other words, Ginsberg et al. is saying that blacks have the right to promotion above and beyond any other group. Now I'm flattered that Ginsberg thinks so highly of me, and I'd love to work for whatever company she happens to run. And I'm sure that along the lines of power advocates, that is a nice position to have, but legally, that position simply cannot fly. It's one thing entirely for an organization to have an affirmative action policy that seeks out qualified black candidates for a jobs and wants to make a diverse or "reflective" organization. Heck, The organization can want to make up for past discrimination, but to:

1) Change a test to make it easier for blacks to pass because well, you know, they can't do certain types of tests.
2) Give, toss, and re-give exams in order to get some kind of result (as Ginsberg suggested).

Is simply outrageous. I have no doubt that there are (and going to be) numerous opinion pieces with those with far more connects than I (and I haven't read them in order to not pollute this piece), which will say that the sky is falling for black people seeking employment. I disagree. The lesson here is pretty clear, Black organizations must continue to press for clear, disclosed and equal employment opportunities. Prospective black employees must make sure to meet those qualifications. Blacks seeking promotional opportunities, ought to do their due diligence. In this particular case, that means that those blacks who wanted to test to become Lieutenant ought to have started prepping for the exam long before the test dates were announced. That also means that black firefighter organizations ought to be at the forefront of mentoring their membership and securing study materials. These organizations and individuals could have easily pooled resources to purchase books and then photocopy them (though there are clear copyright concerns with this, it is done often in schools). They could have formed study groups.

For me, this comes down to expectations. Here's a retired Michigan captain:

Vincent Lewis, a fire program
specialist for the Department of Homeland Security and a
retired fire captain from Michigan. Lewis, who is black,
had looked “extensively” at the lieutenant exam and “a
little less extensively” at the captain exam. He stated that
the candidates “should know that material.” Id., at
A1048, A1052. In Lewis’s view, the “questions were rele-
vant for both exams,” and the New Haven candidates had
an advantage because the study materials identified the
particular book chapters from which the questions were
taken. In other departments, by contrast, “you had to
know basically the . . . entire book.”

I have to say, as someone who works at an institution of higher learning; I see students who simply do not put in the effort required. I know of teachers who simply do not study and expect to pass a test or depend upon a curved grade to pass. Students who have exams that have questions taken directly from study material and still give the wrong answer and due to the fact that the teacher often gives the "complementary" question (that is a question that is the same material but has the opposite answer such that if one knows the material one has basically been given a free point), which the student(s) also miss simply because they did not study or study properly. Ultimately, in my experience, the ones who pass the tests and score the highest are a combination of those who know the most and those who want it the most. Sometimes the ones who want it the most are not the brightest, but they compensate with effort (such as that dyslexic individual).

In the end then the message sent is clear: You have the right to equal opportunity not equal outcome. Opportunity is the employer's job, the outcome is yours. This is good for black folk because it underscores the old school mentality that we must put 100% into our efforts to our own success rather than expect people to dumb down, or make special preparations for us as if we are incapable of doing what others have done. The former leads to higher levels of respect, the latter leads only to disrespect.