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Why Wouldn’t an Exam Culture Favor Discriminated-Against Minorities?

Thursday, July 02, 2009 at 02:10 AM EDT

The Supreme Court has spoken in Ricci v. Stefano, the New Haven firefighter’s case. An employer developed what it thought was a purely job-related exam and said that they would promote the people who did well on the test. The alternatives presumably would have been promotion based on seniority or popularity with supervisor (i.e., suckuptitude). When it transpired that some blacks and Hispanics whom the city had hoped to promote based on the exam failed to score well, the city tossed out the results. The Supreme Court has ordered the city to live by the test results and self-proclaimed advocates for blacks and Hispanics are broadcasting their displeasure.

Initially it seems reasonable that advocates for groups that did poorly on an exam would advocate against an exam culture. But thinking about it a bit more, I found myself surprised.

Suppose I am a member of Group A within society. The average manager thinks that members of Group A are incompetent and doesn’t want to hire anyone in Group A. Membership in Group A can be easily recognized in a face-to-face interview by skin color and therefore, unless nobody else has applied, no member of Group A is likely to get a job after a face-to-face interview.

An employer switches to using a written exam, graded by a computer program unaware of the group membership of test takers. The highest scoring test takers will be given jobs.

This should be a dream come true for me and the rest of Group A. To get a job or a promotion, all that I have to do is study for a written test. I don’t have to worry about my skin color anymore. If Group A has a particular dialect of English or funny accent that turns off employers, I am also freed from worry about how I speak.

If the belief is that Group A is being discriminated against because employers are prejudiced, one would think that any advocate for Group A would welcome a method of hiring or promoting that is blind to personal characteristics.

Suppose that all jobs in the U.S. were exam-based. We would not have had the election of 2004 in which John Kerry and George W. Bush competed for our top job. Neither of them did especially well on exams, as evidenced by their mediocre grades in college. Had ability to be President been judged by an impartial computer system rather than voters, it is unlikely that two white guys from Yale would have been the top contenders.

[Separately, has anyone seen any of the exam questions? A tremendous amount of journalistic ink has been spent on this lawsuit yet I have not seen any sample questions from the exam. Perhaps they were lifted from, e.g.,

You have been invited over for cocktails by the officer of your trust fund. Cocktails begin at 4:30, but you must make an appearance at a 6:00 formal dinner at the Yacht Club. What do you do about dress?

A. Wear your blue-striped seersucker suit to cocktails and change into your tuxedo in the bathroom, apologizing to your host for the inconvenience.
B. Wear your tuxedo to cocktails, apologizing to your host for wearing a dinner jacket before 6:00 PM.
C. Walk to the subway at Columbus Circle and take the "A" Train uptown."

Julian Bond, Black Perspective, Saturday Night Live, April 9, 1977]