Racial discrimination in tests
Originally posted on Facebook
I was one of those who first heard of Ricci v. DeStefano on Tuesday, as one of Justice-designate Sotomayor’s recent cases. I’m not sure it should be used as the benchmark for assessing her, given by upholding precedent, she did what would be expected of her. But the thinking behind the ruling is worthy of further analysis.
Most liberals in this part of the world do have an instinctive reaction against positive discrimination, relative to views commonly held in the US. The idea that people should be hired or not depending on the group they belong to seems distasteful. Having said that, it is wrong to cast aspersions on the motives of such regulations, to style them reverse racists, as some talk-show hosts might. It goes with out saying that there are certain structural problems in American societies that would lead more white people than black people succeeding on a particular quiz.
But, as this article argues, it is not helpful to have a different standard for different groups. It creates resentment among those who were qualified, but for the fact that not enough of certain groups passed the test. The case of Frank Ricci is particularly likely to do so, given that he had clearly put a lot of work into preparing for the test, and found ways to overcome his dyslexia. It can also serve, to some degree, to perpetuate the myth that black people are not as capable academically than others. It also lessens the need to ensure satisfactory levels of basic education in the first place, if these will be attempted to be corrected for later on.
The real solution seems to me to determine what the real minimum requirements for the position are, as clearly the test overstated these in the first place, given that they were happy to adjust the effective pass mark for some of those who took it. If a test is inherently biased towards one group, the answer should not be to accept that and make allowances for them, but to make a test that eliminates this. In this case, for example, there should probably have been more of a practical element to the test.
We have an element of that here, where at the end of civil service exams, applicants are asked to answer what categories they fit into of the nine grounds on which discrimination is prohibited, namely gender, marital status, family status, age, disability, race, sexual orientation, religious belief and membership of the Traveller Community. What is implied in this case is that future tests will be adjusted if the success is less than would be expected given the proportions of any one of these. On similar grounds, I think this unnecessary, and if one group of people happens to be less likely to fill the minimum requirements, then so be it; otherwise, the test should be brought to what really are the minimum requirements. The only exception I think I’d make to this would be on grounds of disability, as someone could be otherwise capable, but be unsuited for a test as normally set up.