In its adjectival form, the word “unqualified” means to offer a hearty endorsement: “President Miller has my unqualified support.” It denotes an unapologetic affirmation. However, as a noun, “unqualified” has essentially the opposite meaning. It is a damning judgment, if not a complete condemnation: “That interviewee is utterly unqualified.”
In some instances, that label can be akin to a collective epithet. In our society, “unqualified” is often a synonym for “Black person.” It is an underhanded way to slander African Americans with a patina of objectivity. Rather than the punch of outright racism, it is a handshake of disingenuity and condescension. In short, Black people are generally assumed to be unqualified for most roles — other than sports.
By contrast, it is relatively rare for the word “unqualified” to be attached to whites who are candidates for jobs or political office — especially if the person is male. The default position is that the white person is inherently qualified, even when they are demonstrably not. Ask yourself when the last was that you heard something along the lines of, “We want the most qualified person” when the candidate was white and male.
A mountain of research has found that whites (and, tragically, Blacks) tend to view Black people as less intelligent than whites. To be clear, the facts do not support that stereotype. That becomes especially clear when there is educational, socioeconomic and nutritional parity among the races. Indeed, I have taken deep pleasure in repeatedly debunking this racist myth in my lifetime.
Some people will argue that I’m suggesting that all white people are racist any time they call an African American unqualified. That is not the case. Obviously, not all Black people are qualified for all jobs. (Nobody should hire me as a chef or nuclear scientist or forklift operator.) However, the rate at which the charge that any given African American is unqualified is far greater than the reality. This stereotype goes back to the antebellum period, when human traffickers (aka plantation owners) insisted that their human captives were incompetent, even though they knew full well that they couldn’t run such a complex operation with stupid people.
All this comes to mind as I observe the controversy that surrounds the Indianapolis Public Library, whose board of trustees decided not to hire Nichelle M. Hayes as permanent CEO. Hayes, who served as interim CEO for nine months, was one of two finalists for the permanent role. The trustees chose someone who had brief — and controversial — stints in similar roles in Atlanta and New Orleans. That person declined the employment offer less than a day after the trustees extended it. (Even he knew that he wasn’t the right person for the job.)
For their part, the trustees insist that their selection was based on the other candidate’s alleged superior qualifications in comparison to Hayes. However, they are loathe to share exactly what constitutes said qualifications, despite repeated requests for them to do so. In effect, their response is “trust us.”
The root word of trustee is “trust.” There needs to be a basis upon which to establish trust with this board, especially given the turmoil that the library system has endured in the past 18 months. Trust is difficult to obtain when there is a dearth of transparency. Indeed, the dictionary bears witness to the fact that transparency precedes trust.
Further, the trustees have a logic problem. Ms. Hayes served as interim CEO for nine months. If she is not qualified, the trustees were derelict in their duty for allowing her to serve for that long. They then selected Hayes to be one of just two finalists. Again, why do so if she is unqualified? If she is qualified, the trustees engaged in intentional malfeasance by not hiring her as permanent CEO, especially after the other candidate declined. Which is it? In the absence of any evidence from them, Occam’s Razor suggests that it’s the latter.
Next year marks the sesquicentennial of the Indianapolis Public Library. During those 150 years, no African American woman has led it. That fact constitutes a syllogism: No Black woman has led the library; ergo, no Black woman has been qualified to lead it. It’s circular logic-cum-cruel hoax.
Fortunately, the trustees have the power to correct this situation. First and foremost, Ms. Hayes clearly is qualified. Second, she enjoys the support of the vast majority of the Indianapolis community who have weighed in on this matter.
My support for Nichelle Hayes is unqualified.
Larry Smith is a community leader. The views expressed are his own. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.