May 07 2009

Deceased Diversity Defenses

In his review of the current state of minority preferences, diversity/affirmative action agendas, merit testing — including very serious, concerted attempts to remove any kind of prejudice from the testing — and the left/right wars in hiring practices at public agencies, John Derbyshire picks as his starting point the utter inability of the New Haven Fire Department to find a way to promote firefighters without being sued.

There is nothing new here, of course. Given the history of this subject, the really surprising thing is that as late as 2003 a fire department was still giving formal examinations for promotions. The New York City Police Department was fighting lawsuits over “discriminatory” test results 30 years ago. Police, fire, and other municipal departments all over the country have been similarly affected across an entire generation.

Attempted solutions have included every kind of rigging and “race norming” of results, the dumbing-down of the tests to a point where well-nigh everyone passes (candidates then being promoted by lottery or straightforward race quotas), the hiring of expensive consultants to devise bias-free tests, and just giving up on tests altogether, as New Haven has now done.

None of it helped, though dumbing down the tests has proved fairly effective for litigation avoidance. (In 1991 the New York City Sanitation Department gave a test on which 23,078 applicants out of 24,000 got perfect scores — try spotting a race gap there!) The careful concocting of scrupulously bias-free tests is now a profitable specialty within the management-consulting field. New Haven hired the Houston firm of Jeanneret & Associates, Inc., who called in a contractor named I/O Solutions to devise firefighter tests, and the city spent over $100,000 in fees to these firms.

It did no good, of course. It never does. The New York Police Department spent ten years trying to write tests for promotion to sergeant that would pass court approval. They brought in minority representatives to help design the 1988 tests, and included video portions. It didn’t help: A quarter of the 12,000 police officers who took the test were minorities, but of the 377 test-based promotions, only 20 went to minorities.

The unhappy fact is that different ethnic groups exhibit different profiles of results on tests. Attempts to devise a test on which this does not happen have all failed, across decades of effort, criticism, and analysis.

Nobody knows why this is so; but the fact that it invariably, repeatedly, and intractably is so, makes testing hazardous — and ultimately pointless — under current employment law. Yet still employees must be selected somehow from applicant pools, and there must be some clear, fair criteria for their subsequent promotion. The state of the law now is that almost anything an organization does in this area will open it to litigation.

Ricci v. DeStefano takes place in a time of general public exhaustion over racial inequalities. We’d really rather just not think about it. Fifty years ago it all seemed cut and dried. Just strike down old unjust laws, give the minority a helping hand, give the non-minority some education about civil rights and past disgraces, and in a few years things will come right.

We coasted along under those assumptions for a generation. When it became obvious that things were not coming right in the matter of test results, scholars and jurists got to work on the problem.

Liberals, with their usual coarse stupidity, naturally assumed it was just a matter of spending more money on schools. This theory was tested to destruction in several places, most sensationally in Kansas City from 1985 to 1997. Under a judge’s order, the school district spent $2 billion over twelve years, pretty much rebuilding the school system — and the actual schools themselves — from the ground up. The new, lavish facilities included “an Olympic-sized swimming pool with an underwater viewing room, television and animation studios, a robotics lab, a 25-acre wildlife sanctuary, a zoo, a model United Nations with simultaneous translation capability, and field trips to Mexico and Senegal.” The experiment was a complete failure. Drop-out rates rose and test scores fell across the entire twelve years. Here are current test scores for the school that got the Olympic-sized swimming pool. (I could not find any published results for achievement in aquatic sports.)

Conservatives, thoroughly race-whipped by the liberal media elites, preferred to go along with whatever liberals said, except that they made, and still make, mild throat-clearing noises about school vouchers. It has turned out in practice, however, that the only people keen on school vouchers are the striving poor, a small (and dwindling) demographic with no political weight, and whom nobody in the media or academic elites gives a fig about. The non-striving underclass has zero interest in education; middle-class suburbanites like their schools the way they are, thanks all the same; and teachers’ unions see vouchers as threats to the public-education gravy train their members ride to well-padded retirement.

As test gaps persisted and lawsuits multiplied, the scholars retreated into metaphysics. The word “culture” was wafted around a lot. It seemed to denote a sort of phlogiston or luminiferous aether, pervading and determining everything, but via mechanisms nobody could explain. We heard about self-esteem issues, “the burden of ‘acting white,’ ” “stereotype threat,” and a whole raft of other sunbeams-from-cucumbers hypotheses. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, two distinguished scholars in the field, produced a much-praised book about test-score gaps with a conclusion in which nothing was concluded. “Choice [of where to live] should not be a class-based privilege.” Where, in a free society, has it ever not been? How will you stop people moving, if they can afford to? “Families must help their children to the best of their ability.” Oh. “Vouchers are a matter of basic equity.” See above. “Big-city superintendents and principals operate in a bureacratic and political straitjacket.” True, no doubt; but test-score gaps are in plain sight even out in the ’burbs. John Ogbu wrote a book about it. Six years ago.

And the test-score gaps just sat there, and sat there, and sat there, grinning back at us impudently.

At last, we just stopped thinking about the whole disagreeable business. Unfortunately, by that time a great body of law had been built on the theories and pseudo-theories of the preceding decades, and couldn’t be wished away. Hence Ricci v. DeStefano.

You can deduce our state of exhaustion from booksellers’ lists. I just spent half an hour trawling through the bibliographies and references in my own modest collection of social-science literature to come up with the following list of 50 published books, most by accredited scholars, relevant to Ricci v. DeStefano and the issues underlying the case. I offer it to the Supremes as a reading list, if they’d like to get up to speed on the necessary sociology.

Derbyshire’s article goes into a very complete recounting of the state of “diversity scholarship” (for lack of a better term).

What he demonstrates, pretty convincingly, is that anyone who has bothered to study all the attempts at “race norming” in testing, at finding ways to make tests “nondiscriminatory,” etc., can’t fail to come away from it believing that it’s essentially impossible to construct a test on which all sectors of society will do equally well, and that includes deliberately TRYING to slant the test in a direction that will be easier for minorities.

What does it mean that we keep on keeping on, pretending that there is any way to make equal outcomes for every sector of society?  Well, it means we’re blind and stupid, maybe.  It means that all cultures are not created equal, will not become equal, and will not produce people of equal ability.  It means that differences between individuals matter HUGELY more than differences between ethnic groups, of whatever description.  It means that our systems of education, certification, hiring and promotion should be “color blind,” and allow excellence to come to the top, from whatever source.  It means that we need to study what is different in the cultures and family lives of the people who succeed more often, of whatever ethnicity, and use that information to teach others how to arrange their lives for the success of their children.

There is a curious phenomena in sociology/global studies departments in universities.  They often have a program of requiring students to spend a semester living in “the inner city” or some minority community so they can get past their “whiteness” and learn how life really is in those communities.  There’s probably nothing wrong with this (absent the inevitable “white bashing”), but imagine the opposite.

What if we had a program for bringing entire minority families into the homes of “typical middle class” families of whatever race, with the stipulation that they will live, for a few months, like the host family lives?  If they came to my house, they’d have to make sure their kids did their homework before anything else.  They’d learn that the parents demand, and the kids give, respect, and that the respect flows both ways.  They’d see TWO parents, working hard to teach their children values that will help them succeed.  (This may seem unfair;  what can a single mother do about it NOW?  Answer:  teach your kids not to repeat your mistakes,  show them what raising kids in a two parent home can be like, and build the ambition in them to seek that stability for their own adult lives.)  They would learn that the parents ALWAYS know where their kids are, who they’re with, what they’re doing, and when they’re coming home.  They’d see kids who actually care what their parents opinions are about matters large and small, at least partly because the parents have respected the kids’ abilities to think and reason.  They would rarely hear a raised voice, or out-of-control expression of negative emotion, from parents or children.

They would see people living within their means, not asking the government for anything much, looking over the shoulders of the teachers and schools, going to church and participating in the church’s life, and taking it seriously at home.  They would see parents seriously discussing current events with their children, explaining issues, giving them books to read on various topics, discussing the values underlying what they see on TV and in movies, etc.  They would see parents seriously discussing the future with their children, suggesting possibilities for the kids, based on realistic appraisals of their ability and personality (not fake “esteem building” that isn’t based on anything real in the child), and they would see parents who make sure their kids have plenty of opportunities to discover things at which they can succeed.

In other words, kids and parents of the hosted family would be learning how to be middle class Americans.

Even if this could be done, if the resources and organization existed to put families together, and the minority families were willing to do it, and even if it could be shown to succeed as a method of teaching successful living strategies and child rearing, objections would be raised, woudn’t they?  Let’s see:

Michelle Obama’s advice.

And, of course, we all recall Jeremiah Wright’s ringing condemnation of “middle class values.”

But what I am advocating is exactly an embrace of “middleclassness” as way of life for people who want to BE in the middle class, with middle class options in education, career, etc.  I’m suggesting that we make “learning to be a member of the middle class,” with all that implies, a goal for our entire approach to helping people get out of poverty.

What we shouldn’t do is create a system of testing, evaluation and rewards that pretends that people have achieved things that they have not.  Yet that this is exactly what we’ve already done, and so our problem is even bigger.

I’m not a dreamer.  I know it’s unlikely that we can get large numbers of those now in poverty to take the trouble to learn how to be “middle class” in the broad sense, which is a whole set of values and orientations that are simply different from typical behavior/attitudes among the chronically poor and “disadvantaged.”  But for way too many of them, their disadvantage is being raised by a single mother (or grandmother!) who did not herself make good life decisions, and is unlikely to be able to help her children do differently.  Learning to “be middle class” would be the best thing that could happen to them all.

We won’t be able to do this effectively, as a society, until we get over the multi-cultural pieties that have made it impossible for enough people to say that one way of life is better than another.

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