The myth of minority favoritism

by Wayne Hare

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 (hcn.org). He is a ranger for the Bureau of Land Management in western Colorado.

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