About . . . . Classes . . . . Books . . . . Vita . . . . Blog. . . . Podcast

by Peter Moskos

July 1, 2009

Civil Service and Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court ruled in Ricci v. DeStafano that a particularly bizarre form of affirmative action is unconstitutional. You can't just throw out a test because you don't like the results. In 2003 a firefighter’s promotional exam produced no black candidates. The city of New Haven threw out the whole exam and promoted no one.

I’m against racial discrimination and that includes many if not most forms of affirmative action. I think affirmative action does more harm than good.

But while I think affirmative action is generally wrong, I’m not willing to say it’s always wrong. Obama or not, we’re not living in a race-blind society. We notice race and we have to take account of race. I do think diversity is good there are some cases where race-based approaches are needed.

White people often say, “I didn’t get no benefits because of my race.” But you have. We all have.

Take college admissions. There are plenty of affirmative-action-like systems out there that benefits white folk. Having a parent who went to a college or held a certain job gives you a benefit. But often that college or job wasn’t open to non-whites a generation or two ago.

Should unqualified blacks get in over whites or Asians? No. But race should be one factor of many.

Athletes get affirmative action. And though some poor blacks benefit from this, it really benefits people who go to rich prep-schools bloated sports programs. Did your school have a lacrosse team and a swimming pool? Well a lot of schools don’t.

I went to the same college my father did. Did I get into college because my dad went there? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not. I certainly didn’t hurt my chances. And my father got in on affirmative action because he was from the state of New Mexico. That's geographic affirmation action. Colleges like Princeton want one student from each and every state. My dad was the token New Mexican. Perhaps, 37 years later, my wife was, too.

But race-based affirmative action is supposed to address historic discrimination in the US. And if that is all it were, I would approve. Legal racial discrimination wasn’t that long ago. Even slavery wasn’t that long ago. To argue that centuries of racism had no lasting negative impact is crazy. And to push people to the bottom and then ask why they can’t lift themselves up is disingenuous at best.

But... I think affirmative action should only be for black people who can trace their roots back to Slavery. Immigrants should never get affirmative action. Period. The idea that a Spanish sounding last name would give you any benefit at all is simply absurd. And women aren't “minorities” (though a good argument could be an argument made for affirmative action for women based on historical discrimination).

Affirmative action, when it is practiced, has become so broad that it no longer helps those people for whom it was designed. Simply being biased against white men isn't the answer. And of course this creates resentment. Significant, real resentment.

But when it comes to civil-service hiring and promotions, I think there are other issues. Civil-service promotional exams are as dumb if not dumber than affirmative action programs. To say that affirmative action isn’t fair somehow implies that civil-service exams are themselves fair. I don’t buy it.

Civil service exams are a horrible way to decide, say, who should be a police sergeant (or a police officer. If you study hard for a civil-service exam you’ll do better. But does doing better on a test mean you’re a better worker? I don’t think so.

A written exam tells you nothing what kind of cop or firefighter you will be when lives are on the line. These tests test nothing about leadership potential or collegial respect. I don’t think it matters one damn bit, in term of your competence to do the job of police officer, whether you score a 96 or a 98 on a civil service exam.

Perhaps hiring and firing in the police and fire department should be done more like normal businesses do it. Let the bosses decide. Or ask the coworkers. While nobody is liked by everybody, if somebody is disliked by everybody, there is probably a problem there. People on the workforce tend to know who is good worker and who isn’t.

In the meantime, I’m happy with the court’s decision. Picking on people because of their race is simply wrong. There has to be a better way.

[update: very interesting story in the New York Times about Ben Vargas, the lone Hispanic firefighter on the winning side of Ricci v. DeStafano.]


tim said...

Affirmative action is excellent when it is used in circumstances like this allegorical one:

You must choose a sprinter for your team from two runners, both of whom run a flat 10s 100 meter dash.

The first runner has perfect form.
The second runner has terrible form, and barely resembles a top-level sprinter.

Which runner do you select? You select the second one, because you can teach him proper form which will make him an even faster runner.

Affirmative action, then, ought to serve as a tiebreaker of sorts. I don't think it has anything to do with race or gender; instead, we ought to provide opportunities to those who managed to achieve despite the terrible odds of their upbringing. There is no question that the educational facilities offered to the nation's poor are embarrassing, and it is a fact of life that kids who grow up poor are not provided the support at home necessary to achieve scholastically.

But those experiences make them excellent candidates for success once they are given access to equal job or educational opportunities.

I have been turned down, now, for dozens of jobs that were given to women or minorities I felt to be less-qualified than me. Indeed, my first choice of college was unavailable to me because of my background (my best friend, who had a lower GPA and test scores than me, got in because his older brother was an alumnus). So I'm a bit butthurt about all this, but still see some value in affirmative action, at least enough to promote its continued existence in some form.

PCM said...

I too would be more comfortable with affirmative action for poor people than anything based on race.

Being rich helps. And if you can succeed for a poor background, a little extra boost could benefit everybody.

I like the analogy between natural talent and learned skill.

One of my friend transferred from the black Eastern District to the white Southern District and told me, "You know what? Criminals here [in a white part of town] are a lot stupider."

I thought that made sense. Because of lot of smart black men get trapped in the ghetto. But to be a fuck-up as a white person? To some greater extent you have to earn it.

Puertorock said...

how did you know they were less qualified?