The myth of minority favoritism


A myth is circulating around the West, and it goes like this: Regardless of your level of competence, if you're black, you'll beat out everybody else when it comes to getting a job with a federal land-management agency such as the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.

A hint of this myth appeared in articles last year about Ellreese Daniels, the black incident commander who was charged in federal court and found guilty of negligence in the deaths of four firefighters in the Thirtymile Fire in Washington. 

It is true that Western land managers in federal agencies actively recruit from under-represented groups in an effort to change the abysmal demographics of their agencies. They do so in order to better represent the American public these agencies serve. All too often, their efforts don't pan out. Unfortunately, people of color seem to hold the misguided notion that land stewardship and wilderness recreation are activities solely for white people. 

Judging by the way many spokespeople for federal agencies squirmed and evaded questions about minority hiring -- the Forest Service in California, where Daniels worked, never did respond to my questions -- minority hiring must be a sensitive issue. Nevertheless, the notion that minorities get preference in federal hiring isn't borne out.

The law of the land mandates equal opportunity, offering protection against discrimination if you are a person of color, a female, are older or belong to a host of other categories. But the law by itself never secures a job or a promotion. What ultimately matters is merit. 

Mike Ornstein, a public affairs officer for the Federal Office of Personnel Management, says flatly, "The federal government does not make use of preferential hiring or promotion programs. We make sure that our recruiting includes communities, universities and community colleges that have diverse populations. We believe this produces a good pool of applicants from which the best-qualified individuals are selected, without regard to race." 

Bill Gwaltney, assistant regional director for the National Park Service in the intermountain West, is charged specifically with trying to get both staff and visitors to national parks to more accurately reflect the diverse reality of America. But when asked if his agency does anything to show preference in hiring under-represented groups, he says, "Absolutely nothing. There are no points added for being from a particular ethnic group, nothing that advances the application of a minority candidate. There is a very popular and oft-quoted myth that somehow the federal hiring process advances the applications of diverse candidates based on the idea that they should be hired simply because they are from an under-represented minority group. While times have changed, there is, at present, no pressure -- official or unofficial -- that would result in a diverse candidate being recommended over a more qualified candidate."

For statistical purposes, the federal government and some large companies have a voluntary disclosure document that asks job applicants to note their ethnic identity, if they so desire. For minorities, this raises an uncomfortable question: Will the hiring manager really not see this? And if anybody does notice, will it help, hurt or make no difference? 

It's curious: Many white folks have come to believe that minorities now have all the advantages. Yet if you ask them, most minorities will tell you that they think they still have to be several times as good as a white man to be considered for a job. I'd guess that from time to time, both of those things are true. 

In comments to an article that appeared in The National Park Traveler about the lack of diversity on the staffs of federal land-management agencies in the West, one reader complained, "I was 'diversified' out of a (temporary) job at Sequoia Kings Canyon National Park. My boss, a Hispanic woman, wanted to 'diversify' the staff, so she hired a Hispanic woman for my position." Well, maybe. But it's far more likely that the writer didn't perform well enough, and somebody better came along. Apparently, the myth has been transformed from "minorities aren't qualified" to "unqualified candidates may get the job anyway because they are a protected minority." That's a subtle shift. 

So what really bothers me here? It's the condescending nature of the new assumption, the excuses and blame that accompany it, and the thinly veiled and slightly more politically correct edge. As Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say on Saturday Night Live, "You know, it's always something." 

Or as Gwaltney puts it, "The numbers do not support the myth (of preferential hiring). In my experience, persons who choose to believe this myth are disinterested in looking at facts, hewing instead to the concept of a conspiratorial federal government." Right. Conspiracies are always more entertaining than facts, after all. And helicopters are always black, too.

Wayne Hare is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is a ranger for the Bureau of Land Management in western Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Race shouldn't even be an issue!!!
Jan 27, 2009 03:29 PM
Here's an idea: out of all qualified applicants for a job, the most qualified person gets it. If it happens that in any given area or job field all employees are white, then so be it. If it happens that in any given area or job field all employees are black, then so be it. Etc., etc.! After all, affirmative action is over, right? Or so we're told!

I think that what happens more often than not when you see an underrepresented ethnicity in any given field is that those minorities are not choosing to focus their education/interests in that direction and consequently, they aren't "represented". If there aren't enough minorities in land stewardship fields then it is up to those minorities to change that themselves. The government should not have to recruit minorities for these jobs through co-ops, internships, etc. (and yes, they do exist!) specifically geared towards getting minorities into fields where they are underrepresented. That's ridiculous! If you have a particular agency that only gets 5% percent minority applicants and consequently there are very few minorities in that agency, mathematically speaking, that makes perfect sense. And who should really be blamed here? The government? Hardly!! Why should the government spend money and time trying to get minorities into a field that they aren't showing an interest in on their own? It's a waste of time and money!!! Spend time and money on people who are interested and show initiative on their own, regardless of their race!

Calling, what often happens in government agencies, "minority favoritism" is an attempt to draw attention away from the real issue which is that when it comes to push and shove, the government will always bow down to organizations like the NAACP when it comes to "equal representation" in any field regardless of whether there is "equal representation" in the applications coming in or not. And that's the bottom line!!
Federal hiring
Tom Ricketts
Tom Ricketts
Feb 05, 2009 12:48 PM
Having spent over twenty years as a seasonal ranger with all three of the major federal land management agencies, I witnessed just about everything when it came to the shenanigans of federal hiring. Reading Mr. Hare's essay would lead one to believe that the federal system for hiring is totally merit based and nearly flawless. Politics is often the name of the game.

To be fair, I should point out that abuses come from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Some of my fellow employees turned out to be well-heeled individuals, primarily from back east, whose only qualification seemed to be daddy's connections with congressman or senator so and so. This was especially true in the national park service.

The federal EEO (equal employment opportunity) program, which all federal employees have drilled into them, makes it illegal to discriminate against individuals or groups for virtually any reason. The reality is that preferential treatment of any group creates the very discrimination the program is designed to prevent. I would suggest that this is one of the most overlooked factors when it comes to the low moral and resentment we have been hearing about in government agencies of late. If Mr. Hare truly believes that the faces of the public land management agencies we see today have not been shaped at least in part by preferential treatment through programs such as affirmative action, he is either misinformed or shares an affliction with Rip Van Winkle.
Federal Hiring
Wayne Hare
Wayne Hare
Feb 18, 2009 09:11 PM
Usually, I don't respond. But Mr. Ricketts exactly personifies the myth. As Ranger Gwaltney says, Ricketts is "disinterested in looking at the facts." I too spent many years as a Park Service seasonal ranger before landing permanently with the Bureau of Land Management. During those seasonal years I either worked at, honeymooned at, or visited friends at virtually all of the western icon parks as well as many lesser known gems. During all those years and all those experiences, I can probably count on my fingers the non-whites that I saw working in federal land management. In this yay or nay situation, the eyes have it. Just go out and take a look before advancing arguments that are so easily refuted by a simple glance outdoors.
Federal hiring
Tom Ricketts
Tom Ricketts
Feb 20, 2009 03:21 PM
Simplistic statements such as "just go out and take a look" add little to this discourse. At issue here is whether preferential treatment is or has been a matter of federal policy, not the racial composition of the federal work force. Even conceding that Mr. Hare's decidedly non scientific survey of land management employees bears some semblance of credibility, it is still irrelevant. Jennifer Siegel's posting outlines the reason why. Additionally, many employees in my experience, particularly in the BLM and forest service and to a lesser extent in the park service, are drawn from the local population which in the west where most of these lands are located is often exclusively white.

Mr. Hare writes, "many spokespeople for federal agencies squirmed and evaded questions about minority hiring" and "minority hiring must be a sensitive issue". This response is not to be expected from people who are comfortable with their position and have nothing to hide. Bureaucrats have good reason to conceal policies that violate EEO standards, legal ramifications being foremost among them.

I find it interesting how readily Mr. Hare dismisses the qualifications and performance of others whose experience in federal employment differ from his own. United States Attorney General Eric Holder recently stated that our country needs a open and honest dialogue concerning race. The resurrection of tired old politically correct platitudes will contribute nothing of value to that dialogue.
James P Fallucco
James P Fallucco
Feb 19, 2013 02:49 PM
A little information how the bogus answer is denied with political correct answer that discrimination on EEO does not happen: The rules are in place sure but after a person makes the selection list for the top five candidates for example say 3 white people 2 men, 1 woman [ or 2 women and 1 man ], 1 hispanic, 1 black. The final selection depends upon the branch chief of the department who has to approve the selected individual. Who may have been told by higher authority who to hire regardless of the qualifications or if this is not the case. The department manager will meet with the panel of two or three supervisors who have interviewed the top five candidates. The white men have to offer more than their experience and knowledge skills abilities. Must be like Superman. The woman candidate, wow, whole bag of complexities she could be beautiful [or NOT !!! but she has powerful people connections and is not qualified ] with all of the attributes and KSA's needed and more for the position. Both the Black and the Hispanic person have the experience but are put on the top five while many qualified people received a rejection letter because only a top five candidate list excluded them and minorites had to be represented. In essence it is all politics which is denied to your face. Check back six months after the person is performing. How are they are performing? Doing poorly,scraping by, their work has to be continually corrected by someone else. Or are they performing with minimal supervision inquiring for clarification and accomplishing above and beyond expected for their time in position? Gender or ethnic background is not the issue here the issue is was the right person hired to do the job.