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Moving Beyond Bias

When black people don’t perform as well on standardized tests, what should be done?

If black firefighters in New Haven can’t make a decent showing on for a test that’s required for promotion, then the question is how we can help them do better, right?

It should be. But in the case the Supreme Court is deciding today, Ricci v. DeStefano, the idea is that the test is inherently “biased” against black people because black people haven’t been doing well on it. In 2003, the highest a black candidate scored for a captaincy was 16th place, behind twelve whites and three Latinos. New Haven’s city service board refused to certify the results, and now 18 candidates are suing on the basis of, for one, the Civil Rights Act of 1964--the very set of laws that transformed life for black Americans not so long ago.

The claim that such tests are biased is heard regularly--for example, one quick way to set heads black and white nodding at a forum on education is to toss off that the SAT is “racially biased.” However, the notion of bias here is a peculiar kind of sidestep: If black people tend not to do well on a test, then we are to pretend that regardless of any evidence in the test itself, it must be unfair in some way, because otherwise, why wouldn’t black people do as well on it as others?

Of course, the question we are not supposed to ask is whether the failure rate suggests that black people are less intelligent. However, there is no need to fear here. The reason black people of unaffluent origin tend not to do well on standardized tests is a matter of language and how it’s used--and the issue is less about color than class, and in the global sense, about what it is to be human.

In countless American communities, flyers are routinely full of major misspellings, more than a few people are only fitfully comfortable with e-mail, and few read newspapers above the tabloid level. Life is fundamentally oral. People from places like this (which include Appalachia and the rural white South, as much as black and brown inner cities) get next to no reinforcement from home life in acquiring comfort with the written word beyond the utilitarian.

Reading is not the only cultural hurdle. In working-class and poor black culture as in many fundamentally oral ones, being asked point-blank questions--like, “When was the Declaration of Independence written?”--and answering clearly is not as central to normal communication as it is in mainstream culture. (Consult, for example, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways With Words.) Many black people of working-class or poor background mention how ticklish this kind of interaction felt when they first went to a decent school.

Direct questions as regular interaction are largely an epiphenomenon of the printed page. Most humans on earth lead fundamentally oral lives in the linguistic sense (only about 200 of the world’s 6,000 languages are written in any serious way, for example), and need to adjust to direct questions. Middle class American kids inhale them at the kitchen table. Other kids learn how to deal with them in school; it takes practice, and because our public schools are so uneven, quite a few never get really good at it.

Thus if the black firefighters aren’t at home with the format of the promotion test (reading passages and answering questions on what they mean), it is understandable and has nothing to do with their innate ability. After all, placing 16th in a pool of several dozen candidates is not too shabby in itself. The job, it would seem--say, to old-time Civil Rights leaders with a black pride that deserved the name--would be to enhance the innate ability. The black candidates need practice.

Plaintiff Frank Ricci understood this. He’s dyslexic. Instead of doing poorly on the test and charging discrimination, he had textbooks read onto tape, worked with a study group, and practiced hard. He placed sixth out of 77. Any notion that this is too much to ask of someone with more melanin--or even with a different “racial history”--is nonsensical at best and gruesome at worst.

Still, we justify the rhetorical contortions that excuse black people from challenging examinations; in the end, it is based on a tacit sense that such things are antithetical to black authenticity, that it is somehow untoward to require this kind of concentrated scholarly exertion on black people. It is the grown-up version of what Barack Obama termed in his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention “the slander that says that if a black youth walks around with a book in his hand he’s acting white.”

“I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903. A century later, the International Association of Professional Black Firefighters tells us, “Cognitive examinations have an adverse effect upon blacks and other minorities.” Du Bois crowed, “Fifty years ago the ability of Negro students in any appreciable numbers to master a modern college course would have been difficult to prove,” and proudly documents 2,500 black college graduates. Imagine Du Bois listening to a rep from the black firefighters’ association now sneering that the promotion test merely measures “the ability to read and retain”--i.e. engage in higher-level thinking processes! O tempora, o mores.

This will not do: People like Du Bois did not dedicate their lives to paving the way for black people to be exempt from tests. Sure, the tests may not correlate perfectly with firefighters’ duties. But which falls more into the spirit of black uplift that you could explain to a foreigner in less than three minutes: teaching black candidates how to show what they are made of despite obstacles, or banning a test of mental agility as inappropriate to impose on black candidates?

Zora Neale Hurston had some apt words in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road: “It seems to me that if I say a whole system must be upset for me to win, I am saying that I cannot sit in the game, and that safer rules must be made to give me a chance. I repudiate that. If others are in there, deal me a hand and let me see what I can make of it.”

If the Supreme Court is truly committed to racial justice, it will listen to Zora.

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.