American Renaissance

‘Arbitrary Barriers’ and Merit

Joseph Kay, American Renaissance, December 28, 2011

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.

Illustration from La Griffe du Lion.

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.

About Joseph Kay

Joseph Kay is a retired academic who suffers from compulsive truth-telling disorder.



  • Anonymous

    Good article. I know very little about this topic, but I’ve always perceived that a question (from an IQ test, a postal test, etc.) has at least two components. Let’s call them “the vehicle” and “the underlying concept”. An example: “Suppose Gina has two cartons of eggs (12 in each carton), but drops one carton while walking to the parking lot, breaking 8 of the eggs in that carton. How many eggs does Gina have left?” In that simple question, the “underlying concept” is ([12 x 2] - 8), while the “vehicle” here is the story about Gina and her eggs, which conveys the underlying concept to the reader. Often, the claim of test biases is an attack on the vehicles themselves. If we were discussing some sort of entrance test for a job in the automotive industry, it would seem a sensible compromise to replace the vehicle of the above question with one seemingly more related to the industry. Replace Gina and her eggs with Larry and his lug-nuts. He has two boxes of 12 each and accidentally discards one.

    Many PC critics will observe that blacks score dramatically lower on this entrance test, and so will disparage the test any way they can. In an attempt to invalidate the test’s questions, they’ll argue that the questions are unrelated to the field (which is nearly pointless because it clearly fails to justify the embarrassing scores being achieved by blacks). You’d think that the above approach would be enough to appease these critics, even if just short term. It would enable the measuring of the applicant’s ability to make sense of information, while outwardly appearing peculiar to the profession he’s applying to.  Unfortunately, it seems that the UNDERLYING CONCEPTS themselves are coming under fire. Instead of solely attacking the vehicle being used, PC critics are questioning whether or not it’s important to know what ([12x2] - 8 ) equals. Those attacks on the questions’ underlying concepts will likely be far more damaging to industries than mere attacks on the vehicles being used, since the vehicles can be easily modified without changing the very meaning of the exam.

    • Question Diversity

      I think this whole nonsense about “biased tests” had its genesis in a few SAT tests having verbal section questions that required one to know the general anatomy of a yacht.  Because it’s so shocking that a test formulated by an academic organization in the Northeast and linked heavily to the northeastern establishment would ask a question about a favorite play toy of the northeastern establishment.  Now, it has been a long time since any yacht questions were asked on SATs, (and I never saw one, when I took it in June 1994), so those concerns were moot.  Just in case, my SAT prep material included learning the parts and anatomy of a yacht.

      • Anonymous

        I remember that or a similar question that was an analogy. The question was  “runner is to marathon as…” the correct choice was “”Yacht is to Regatta . People always use this as an example of cultural bias on tests towards white-middle class values. Which is funny since not many middle-class people own a yacht. The other two answers were easy to figure out as NOT being the correct answer.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent article. Amen, these tests are not biased - & when they are they’re actually biased against whites & asians (the test may underpredict how well a white or asian will do on the criterion). Usually a test predicts accurately & equally for all groups (a low score means poor performance on the outcome variable, no matter if it is a black with a low score or a white). bias is when there is not equal predictive validity for all groups. if we had a test that blacks & whites scored equal on (it would have to be a very low g, non cognitively complex test), that test would be biased against whites b/c it would underpredict how well whites do on a criterion variable. since blacks score lower on the test & also do more poorly on the outcome (job performance, GPA, etc.) the difference between black & white performance on these tests is due solely to the amount of g (general mental ability/cognitive complexity) & has nothing to do with how nonverbal/cultural the test is. simply put, the more g-loaded the test, the more the black white average difference. test developers bend over backwards to remove items that are unfair to blacks, females, regions of the country, etc. these tests predict very well & predict equally & accurately for all groups, therefore these tests are not biased.

  • Angry Whiteman

    Good article.  However, I don’t think the author mentioned that one of reasons blacks think they are intellectually equal is that they have been told this their entire lives.  Therefore, there is no other plausible explanation other than discrimination, racism, academic inequities such as biased tests.  They either have to accept the unpleasant truth or blame their failures on someone else.  Which would you do?  Children most often blame others and I have long contended that black and whites have a child/parent relationship.  Whites of course being the parents and blacks being the unappreciative children who blame their parents for everything that goes wrong in their lives.       

    As a former teacher I believe the SAT, ACT, ASVAB and ALL OTHER ACADEMIC TESTS are not biased because they all give very similar, if not identical results.  If the tests were not valid the results would not be so consistent.   Instead, the results would be all over the map.  Blacks do not understand that because they lack the ability or refuse to understand science, math, or statistics.  Instead they write off these concepts as “the white man’s voo-doo.  

    It is no coincidence that the highest scoring races also happen to be the races that put a man on the moon, split the atom and cured polio. It is no coincidence that the lowest scoring races happen to live in grass and tin huts even today.   There is a direct cause and effect and black refuse to accept facts and replace facts with the religion of  political correctness.

  • Reasonable Discrimination

    Graphics, for us especially, amount to a very very important art in supplementing printed text.  The “bimodal” distribution of Black and White “Bell Curves” superimposed is useful.  It, however, falls short of conveying starkly that about 25% of the Black population-25%-fall at or below the traditional line for demarking mental retardation in the majority population.    On the other hand,  a slender fraction of one percent of the Black population can clear the low hurdles for Mensa membership or for inclusion in most gifted education programs in most high school settings that require IQ scores in the top two percent of the majority population-say, 128 and above.   A useful panorama might be to illustrate all this in a drawing of the near finish line in a mile run that has begun with a sizable representative population. If success can be betokened by large physical stature,  there will be but one or two large Black figures anywhere in the portion to cross the finish line early on;  there will be hordes amonst the small stragglers. The size representation permits also a sense of stature not conveyed by mere IQ scores, as the “size” difference between, say, IQ 132 and 142 is much greater than, say, between IQ 112 and 122. 

  • Anonymous

    It is important to point out that all stupid people believe that education and standards are arbitrary, regardless of background. I have spoken to friends who have taught at open admission colleges and many of the students at these schools believe that tests are designed to “trick” them or that being properly prepared for tests is not a real measure of knowledge in a subject as “you could always just look it up later.” These schools stay in business as the students (often white) are too dim to realize that such a college’s academic standards are very low and are in no way a preparation for a white collar job or graduate school. The only difference between the low g white and black students in this instance is that the dumb white students don’t blame school standards on racism.

  • Anonymous

    What many people don’t seem to be aware of yet is that most major American universities have quietly discounted the SAT in their admission policies to the point that it is now almost meaningless (except maybe in cases of very high or very low scores). 

    They did this, I suspect, because of incessant and unsubstantiated whining from the anti-racist Left that the SAT is biased, as well as because evidence now suggests that the SAT doesn’t have much value in predicting undergrad performance (although I wonder if they controlled for school and major in these studies, as I suspect liberals have a hard time admitting that it’s easier to get good grades at Howard than at Harvard or in Sociology or African-American Studies than in Physics or Engineering).

    Admissions offices have all but abandoned the SAT and have shifted nearly all their consideration to high school grades, which they argue are a fairer measure because they reflect effort and knowledge acquisition over a long period of time. 

    In truth, grades are a much more biased reflection of student ability and performance — but they are biased in favor of the “right” group, that is, blacks and hispanics. As everyone knows, blacks and hispanics are much more likely to attend underperforming schools with largely black and hispanic student bodies. Because grading is typically done on a bell curve, that is grades are given out relative to other students taking a class so that typically a few students will get As and Fs and most will cluster in the C range, black and hispanic students in these schools are graded in comparison to each other. Given what we know about average racial differences in scholastic performance (e.g. the average black high school graduate performs on the same level as the average white 8th grader in reading and math), not to mention differences in average IQ, it follows that black and hispanic students in these schools have a much easier time getting good grades than white and asian students typically do in their super-competitive high-performing schools. It’s simply a matter of competition.

    Of course, nothing could be more un-PC than saying that little LaToya, with her 4.0 from a typical, grossly underperfoming innercity black high school is less deserving of a spot in the flagship state university than little Susie or little Jing-Lee with equally good grades from the elite white and Asian suburban high school. On the contrary, LaToya receives benefits from affirmative action on top of her easier-earned grades, and to question this would bring on dreaded charges of racism. She is truly the recipient of enormous privilege and protection.

    The typical liberal rejoinder to this is that LaToya has had to overcome special hardship on account of having gone to a bad high school. There is probably truth to this, but it is difficult to quantify and to compare to the benefits she received from having less competition for good grades. However, the well known underperfomance of blacks at elite American universities (which would probably be even more striking if one takes into account the self sorting of blacks towards easier majors such as history and African-American Studies and away from hard sciences) indicates that whatever disadvantage they had from attending bad high schools was greatly overcompensated for by the advantages they received from less competition for good grades and from affirmative action. 

    Perhaps bringing the SAT or another standardized test back into significant consideration in college admissions will reduce this mismatch and help ensure that only blacks and hispanics who deserve to attend a given university will be accepted. More importantly for those who value justice, it will help prevent white and asian applicants,who have already overcome of the odds and earned good grades at their super-competitive high schools, from being robbed of an education they have earned and deserve.

    • Question Diversity

      Discounting the SAT in favor of school grades?  That’s backwards.  Standardized tests are the great equalizers to expose grade inflation and course title inflation.  Part of the perfidy at black high schools isn’t just the grade inflation, it’s also that a course with a rigorous sounding title only sounds difficult; in reality, material far less rigorous is actually going on in that class.  The Oprah of all people blew the lid off that scandal.

      The SATs and ACTs are no longer a hard and fast requirement for two reasons - First, the favored minorities won’t do well in them generally.  Second, those applicants that do report their scores are the self-selecting higher scorers, to impress the admissions committee.  Therefore, the school gets to pump up the average SAT/ACT score of its incoming class, but it’s all the legerdemain of self-selection.