What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine: The White Nature of Meritocracy

A recent post from Insiderhighered.com, entitled “Meritocracy or Bias?,” prompted widespread debate on social media regarding race, affirmative action, and definitions of meritocracy.

The study here does not reveal a fluid or shifting understanding of meritocracy.  Yes, in one context white respondents were “asked to assign the importance they thought various criteria should have in the admissions system.”  Not surprisingly, this group cited test scores and grades as the centerpiece of any admissions’ decisions.   Given racial stereotypes and the broader discourse regarding affirmative action, is it surprising that merit was defined through standards PRESUMED to be advantageous to white applicants?  Is it surprising that hard work and “earning” admission to a college of university erases both history and contemporary inequality in such a manner that whiteness is central to dominant definitions of merit and deservedness?

In the other context, white respondents “received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state.” When told about potential Asian applicants, the definition of merit shifted the focus away from test scores and GPA.  Instead of those traditional metrics, white respondents now saw leadership and other intangible qualities as important.

The findings are revealing on so many levels.  The mere mention of Asian American applicants seemingly scarred the white respondents.  One can deduce that “Asian American” conjured up a narrative of academically successful applicants whose test scores and grades would lead them to rise to the top (unless merit was defined in other ways).  It should also be noted how Asian Americans is seen through the narrative of model minority discourse.

The author of the study, Frank Samson, describes the findings as such:

Sociologists have found that whites refer to ‘qualifications’ and a meritocratic distribution of opportunities and rewards, and the purported failure of blacks to live up to this meritocratic standard, to bolster the belief that racial inequality in the United States has some legitimacy. However, the results here suggest that the importance of meritocratic criteria for whites varies depending upon certain circumstances. To wit, white Californians do not hold a principled commitment to a fixed standard of merit.

At face value, there appears to be a dynamic shift in what constitutes merit, what constitutes the desired standards colleges and universities should use for admission decisions.  Yet, in both contexts, the desirability of and centrality of whiteness remains clear.  Whiteness is what is meritorious and everything else is secondary.  The rules and the standards must reflect and reaffirm the spots reserved for white students.  “Why is this journalist and the researcher portraying whites’ takes on meritocracy as fluid when the evidence presented actually suggests they are as rigid as can be,” notes Dr. Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo, associate professor of Culture, Gender, and Race at Washington State University. “Whites believe in meritocracy as long as it keeps them and their children on top. Nothing fluid about that, as fluidity suggests some kind of shift in mentality and/or behavior.”

Indeed, there is no change to their definition or understanding of meritocracy.  It is not a shift in what are the desired qualities or qualifications perspective students should possess but an effort to preserve white entitlement. If rules need to be changed to preserve white admissions then that takes place. It seems that there is continuity in terms of definition of merit and that begins and ends with whiteness.  In other words, this isn’t a “flip flop” as argued, but the manifestation of racism, white privilege, and the racial standards that are engrained within American culture.  It is about focused effort to maintain a system that preserves and protects white entitlement; it is about protecting spots presumed to be for “whites.”  The predetermined rightful place of whites within higher education remains constant.  The paths to achieve this reality changes but the centrality of white supremacy is steady.

The efforts to protect white privilege, to enshrine white spots in higher education, and to otherwise center whiteness as the basis of merit is nothing new.  The examples are endless throughout history from voting rights to rights of citizenship (due process; innocent until proven guilty whites; guilty until proven innocent for people of color).  And the rules and laws simply shift according to the needs and desires of whiteness.  In 1915, a team of Filipino clerks defeated their white American bosses in volleyball.  Refusing to acknowledge the merit of their victory, the white bosses denounce their play as “unsportsmanlike” and “deceptive,” they simply changed the rules to protect white merit.  No longer able to bump the ball 52 times before sending it over the net (which they reportedly did during this match), Filipino teams were allowed no more than 3 bumps (their white counterparts, unlimited).  Just as with this study, the definition or understanding of merit didn’t change, the rules to protect white merit and privilege adjusted as necessary.

In 2003, MIT’s Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, found that applicants with “white sounding names” were 50 percent more likely to receive a callback from a potential employer.  Although the resumes were identical between black and white applicants, those with “black sounding names” found calls infrequent.  Put another way whiteness or the perception of whiteness was worth 8 years of work experience.  To those employers, white was right.  To the respondents in these studies, white is also right.  What is right, deserving, and meritorious about whiteness may change contextually; yet the desire to preserve “white only” admission slots is clear. Fluidity, no; entrenched racism and the protection of white privilege, without a doubt.

The study offers a clear message, with its consequences evident in the ongoing assault on affirmative action: What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is mine. And that is the white definition of meritocracy.

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