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Letter: Is competence too much to talk about?

Have you noticed how the news coverage of the Biden administration largely focuses on diversity (race, gender, ethnicity, etc.) rather than the appointee’s/nominee’s competence to do the job in question? I list competence as second because that is how that subject is mentioned in news stories, if at all. The oldest white guy sworn in as president. The first female, Black, Asian-Indian, and daughter of immigrants to become vice-president. The first openly gay person to serve in a presidential cabinet. The first Native American.

Does the media focus on these characteristics make any of the Biden picks incompetent for the job? No. They were vetted. They are qualified. But their competence isn’t always the focal point of the news story. And that is how we as a people tend to look at people, too.

How do we mitigate and strive to eliminate discrimination if our focus is on what makes us different? Shouldn’t we balance our celebration of diversity while working to eliminate discrimination? I think that we should, and that we can.

We start with talking about competence to perform the duties of a job when we are considering hiring someone and, simultaneously but secondarily, consider those other traits.

The first law school that I applied to after college turned me down because the federal government was putting pressure on that state school to admit more minorities. I was a white male back then. An assistant dean of the school told me, face-to-face, that my qualifications were better than many of those they admitted, but my gender and race precluded me from admission. Hard work, good grades and test scores, and respect for following the rules turned into a row of lemons.

That was the only law school in my state. My life improved when my bride and I moved to California. I managed radio stations, graduated from law school, practiced law, helped raise two outstanding sons and then, as a long time Democrat, I was appointed to the Madera County Superior Court by a Republican governor with the support of more ”quality” Republican lawyers and judges than any other Democrat in that governor’s terms in office, according to what an appellate judge told me. Moving here afforded my family more opportunities than we would have had in the previous state. And I like hard lemonade.

I was required, as a judge, to participate in bias and diversity training. I thought that I knew something about that because I grew up with a lot of black kids while my dad served in the Army. When he retired, I schooled with Hispanic and Native American kids. But I learned in class about how each of us can be biased without knowing it. The training helped open my eyes to the perspectives of those who did not look like me. But over time, the focus in those classes seemed to become biased FOR those who did not look like me and AGAINST white, straight guys. A California state senator, a female minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee (who invited me to testify regarding the need for a new Madera courthouse) later recounted the discrimination that she faced from old, white guys when she was first elected to public office. She said that the State of California needed fewer middle aged, white men as judges. I was then a middle-aged, white, male judge. How was she going to end racial discrimination by discriminating on the basis of race?

Some of you have been upset with my criticisms of Trump. All I choose to say in response is, “Bless your hearts.” (I have lived in Georgia and Texas.) Besides, my wife convinced me to remove what else I had to say.

But you might imagine the reaction I received when I commented at a statewide judge’s conference on bias and diversity, that I was tired of hearing about how we needed more judges who looked like people in their community WITHOUT discussing competence. You could have heard a pin drop. Someone broke the ice by saying that competence is always ASSUMED. No! Competence is NEVER assumed, people. You need evidence of it. Proof. Much like fraud in a presidential election. You need facts.

We should talk about a person’s competence for the job, as well as diversity. Example: The applicant/candidate is qualified to do the job because of her/his education, training, experience, character and ethics AND she/he is (fill in diversity trait) which is needed in our community for the following reasons… There are many competent people who are (fill in diversity trait) who deserve to be hired.

Can you imagine the outcry if an unqualified diversity candidate proved his lack of competence while on the job? That would set off attacks and set back diversity.

Ignoring a person’s competence has real world consequences. What if voters in a judicial election ignore competence and elect someone simply because of a candidate’s political party or the uniform that he wore after dropping out of high school years ago? Then we get a judge who cannot perform the duties of his incredibly important and complicated position. The new judge is given a “dumb-it-down” court assignment created just for him. The other, already overburdened, judges of the court must work cases that would have been assigned to a competent judge. A courthouse closes. The community suffers.

If we ignore competence, then we get a high school dropout Congresswoman from Rifle, Colorado, whose claim to fame is packing a pistol on her hip and a Congresswoman from Georgia, who espouses QAnon conspiracy theories. Both then consider themselves to be instant constitutional scholars. And we get a president who leaves office after inciting a deadly insurrection following months of lying to those who trusted him.

Is competence too much to talk about?

— Charles Wieland,


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