Blacks seldom show any appreciation for the enormous efforts whites make to accommodate them. Many are angry for not receiving even more help, and there are endless cries of “racism.” For example, blacks admitted to elite universities reject the idea that they had inferior academic records, and are outraged if anyone points out that they received preferential treatment. In their own minds they are just as qualified as the smartest whites and Asians.
I have long been puzzled by this inability of blacks to accept the obvious, but I have now come to understand it, at least partially. The answer is in how blacks think of standards and standardized tests. They dismiss any attempt to use standards to ensure a modicum of competence as “arbitrary.”
An “arbitrary” decision is one based on personal whim rather than clearly fixed rules. In a university, for example, an arbitrary admissions policy might be based on an applicant’s facial features, and vary by admission officer, even day to day. An admissions policy of that kind would be neither understandable to outsiders nor clearly linked to future academic accomplishment, so it would be considered illegitimate.
Another extreme example would be an airport security system that allowed people to board a plane only if they could answer difficult questions at the gate—such as, what is the capital of the Ukraine or the square root of 714. Needless to say, this would be infuriating and rightly condemned as unfair, because it would be unrelated to security risks.
Let me suggest that for many blacks, especially the poorly educated, the barriers to decent schools, well-paying jobs, bank loans, and all the rest of what constitutes worldly success seem to be “arbitrary” artificial barriers constructed by devious whites to exclude blacks. They denounce these barriers as “racism,” and argue that whites are able to surmount them only because of “white privilege.” It is as if, in the above example, whites trying to board the plane are all secretly told that the capital of the Ukraine is Kiev.
In fact, in the past there have been discriminatory practices set up to reject certain people regardless of ability. For decades, Ivy League schools favored applicants who were “well-rounded” or displayed “leadership,” even though few admission officers could define these traits precisely. Businesses have denied employment because of religion rather than ability.
This is the way many blacks view standardized tests and other objective measures used in education: they are arbitrary. After all, why should having a rich vocabulary—which is key to a high SAT score—be relevant when (a) nobody can possibly define every English word, so why these words but not others? (b) arcane words are generally irrelevant to daily life; and (c) you can always look up unfamiliar words. Similarly, why should someone who plans to major in Black Studies or some other field that does not rely on mathematics have to excel on the math SAT? Many blacks see no connection between math, vocabulary, and what is the real object of education for many blacks: a diploma.
The cut-off points for admission or rejection can appear just as arbitrary. Why, for example, should access to a cornucopia of education-supplied benefits depend exclusively on missing a few tricky questions that brings a SAT score of 550 down to a 460? And what makes these abstract numbers so significant, especially since they are part of a hidden, unjustified statistical formula?
Tests like these are not at all a straightforward contest like running a race to see who is the fastest. Particularly for the slightly paranoid, the SAT, MCAT, GRE, and all the rest seem to be anti-black ruses. The same view holds for employment tests, including those that assess potential honesty or the simple requirement of having a high school degree. That these standards were devised by whites, scored by whites, and their results always favor whites settles the issue—they are arbitrary subterfuges.
What makes this especially frustrating for blacks is that the best predictors of future performance in countless situations (including jobs and education) are often tests that seem to have little to do with specific skills. This means that the more useful the test as a gauge of future success in fields where brains count, the more likely it is to be perceived as arbitrary. These are test that measure “g” (innate intelligence), and they typically have strong predictive validity across multiple situations, from job performance in virtually any field to health (this is what The Bell Curve was all about). Tests that are closely related to a specific task, such as a typing test given to prospective typists, are said to have, in technical language, high “face validity,” but have more limited predictive value than tests of general intelligence. Their main purpose is to test for qualifications in a way that will survive legal challenges.
So, imagine an aspiring middle-class black applying for an executive position. He is given a test that includes a few business-related items but many highly abstract items that test for g, or IQ. He is not hired and, feeling victimized by “arbitrary” standards, files an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Grigg vs. Duke Power that tests that have a “disparate impact” on minorities are illegal even if there is no intention to discriminate. The only exceptions are tests for what are called “bona fide occupational qualifications,” and it is very hard to develop a test of that kind that the EEOC will accept. The black applicant wins his case and is hired. As far as he is concerned, he has successfully overcome an arbitrary barrier erected by racist whites.
This is the pattern more generally—blacks see themselves as navigating an obstacle course created by whites to sustain white privilege. It then follows that all the white-supplied gifts to blacks will never be understood as gifts but only as hard-won installments in the quest for total racial equality.
Put another way, equality requires abolishing white-created “arbitrary” barriers like the SAT. When blacks criticize whites for imposing “arbitrary” standards, they are attacking the very core of a merit driven society. This is a deep, perhaps unbridgeable philosophical divide, not just a dispute over the fairness of individual test items or the level at which passing grades should be set. Since there is no way to eliminate the impact of g on employment tests and still maintain the merit principle, black anger may be forever.