It's not about “merit.”
Not the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Michigan voters’ rights to keep an affirmative action ban in the state constitution. Not the initial ignorant decision by voters to strike down affirmative action as a tool for diversifying college campuses. And certainly not these phony arguments about who is “qualified” to attend our top universities and who isn’t.
It’s not about GPAs and ACT scores—the only two measures for “merit” that white folks ever want to bring up when arguing for why black students shouldn’t be allowed into top schools—and it never has been.
If it were, the courts would be filled with challenges to “legacy” status—an evaluation criterion that essentially awards as many as 45 points in the admissions process to candidates based on their family ties. This, after all, is the criterion that allows incurious C students to get into Yale before going on to be the worst U.S. President in modern memory. But so far, nobody has suggested a state constitutional amendment telling rich white boys that they can’t use daddy’s connections to go to school.
If the discussion really were just about “merit” as so narrowly defined, the University of California system would never have changed its admissions criteria to generally eliminate the requirement of SAT subject tests — on which Asian-Americans consistently outscored whites and which contributed to an Asian-American student body on California campuses that was disproportionately larger than their numbers in the general population. (Following the 2009 change, the numbers of Asian-Americans on California campuses was predicted to fall by as much as 20 percent, prompting one professor to characterize the criteria change as “affirmative action for whites.”)
Jumping For Joy for a Black Football Star
If it were about merit, we wouldn’t have the shameful gall to jump for joy when a 19 score on a standardized test brings a black football star to U-M but a 23 on that same test is used to exclude a black debate club president.
And were this type of “merit” really at the heart of the affirmative action debate, University of Miami researcher Frank Sampson would never have seen the results he did after conducting a survey that exposed the hypocrisy of white attitudes about college admission qualifications (emphasis added):
Specifically, he found, in a survey of white California adults, they generally favor admissions policies that place a high priority on high school grade-point averages and standardized test scores. But when these white people are focused on the success of Asian-American students, their views change.
The white adults in the survey were also divided into two groups. Half were simply asked to assign the importance they thought various criteria should have in the admissions system of the University of California. The other half 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 informed of that fact, the white adults favor a reduced role for grade and test scores in admissions -- apparently based on high achievement levels by Asian-American applicants. (Nationally, Asian average total scores on the three parts of the SAT best white average scores by 1,641 to 1,578 this year.)
When asked about leadership as an admissions criterion, white ranking of the measure went up in importance when respondents were informed of the Asian success in University of California admissions.
"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," Samson writes in the paper. "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."
Samson raises the idea that white perception of "group threat" from Asians influences ideas about admissions criteria -- suggesting that they are something other than pure in their embrace of meritocratic approaches.
The Cowardice of Picking on the Weak
So no, it’s not about “merit,” this debate.
It’s about picking on the politically weak and the socially despised. It’s about a nation so cowardly, so ashamed of its history and so steeped in its own white supremacist juices that it will never muster the courage to truly eradicate the dehumanizing racial caste system that has defined it since birth.
And ultimately, it’s about preserving the underpinnings of that caste system while at the same time feigning obliviousness to its long, nasty, bloody history.
In a scathing dissent, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor called out her SCOTUS colleagues for this same willful ignorance: “This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society."
Like the defense of affirmative action, the opposition to the policy is as much about race as anything else. Only, one side is far too vested in hypocrisy and dishonesty to ever admit it.