On The Idea That Merit Is Actually A System: An Intervention On Behalf Of Affirmative Action

January 26, 2011, 8:26 pm

These remarks were delivered on Saturday, January 22, at the Third Social Justice Leadership Conference, organized by students at Zenith University.  I appeared on a panel about affirmative action policies and academic admissions with colleagues Alex DuPuy (sociology); J. Kehaulani Kauanui (American Studies and Anthropology); and Sonja Manjon, Vice President for Diversity and Strategic Partnerships.  The panel began with remarks by Theodore M. Shaw, Columbia School of Law and formerly head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  The conference followed a keynote by Geoffry Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, given the previous evening.

On left, a self-identified “victim of a hate crime.”  Credit.

The analysis that follows was shaped by what I observed in the fall of 2009 during a conflict provoked by some of our students over Zenith’s affirmative action policies; it was also shaped by the impressive response of other students to that provocation. As I watched these discussions unfold,  I wondered:  Which students were put in the position of justifying themselves as merit-bearing subjects entitled to an excellent education? Which students assumed that their merits were obvious, and that their presence at Zenith was not subject to debate?

As a result of these thoughts, I want to examine a word, as it relates to the role affirmative action plays in education. That word is merit, a thing we are told is part of something called “the merit system.”  Merit is a word I particularly dislike. Every time I hear it, I am quite sure that something dishonest is going on that needs to be attended to.

The thoughts and analysis that follow are grounded in the following experiences and beliefs:

  • Reflections on my life’s journey as a white woman, a beneficiary of affirmative action and a person whose accomplishments have grown over time in a way that does not always correlate with the assumptions of others about my merit;
  •  A grounding in queer studies that causes me to question all systems – like the merit system — that codify and normalize us;
  •  My familiarity with critical race studies and feminist theories of intersectionality articulated by scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw, Derrick Bell and Lisa Lowe. Such work, I argue, helps us to understand a long American history in which “merit” is attached to some bodies and not to others. For example, Asians ineligible for citizenship were de facto outside systems of merit to which only members of the national body politic were entitled.  Enslaved people in the nineteenth century United States were not judged by whites to possess merit, honor or wisdom – any of the qualities that might have qualified them as having “rights a white man must respect.” (Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857), a stigma that attaches itself to African descended people in the United States to this day.

     I am not the only person who thinks merit is a funky concept. In 1996, Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier wrote, in response to escalating attacks on affirmative action from the right, and the failure of liberals to defend these policies with sufficient vigor:

    The present system measures merit through scores on paper-and-pencil tests. But this measure is fundamentally unfair. In the educational setting, it restricts opportunities for many poor and working-class Americans of all colors and genders who could otherwise obtain a better education. In the employment setting, it restricts access based on inadequate predictors of job performance. In short, it is neither fair nor functional in its distribution of opportunities for admission to higher education, entry-level hiring, and job promotion.  

    They go on to explain that most attacks on affirmative action equate merit with test scores and, in the case of admission to institutions of higher education, grade point averages, class rank and other numerical indicators of academic achievement. Fairness, in this discussion, requires assessing whether “treating everybody the same” is truly fair.1

    Sturm and Guinier articulate a familiar, and solidly liberal, critique of our current testing culture, one that has been influential in the admissions process at a place like Zenith since the 1970s.  They go on to suggest alternative forms of assessment that might make the system fairer, correcting the “uneven playing field” that Geoffrey Canada spoke about last night.   By doing so, assessment would rely less on the prior acquisition of what Pierre Bourdieu would call “cultural capital,” a standard that inhibits access for working class students, many of whom are of color and/or new immigrants, from exhibiting their talents or displaying the accomplishments that middle class and wealthy students have more opportunity and support in acquiring.  In other words, affirmative action continues to work because the values being affirmed have been adjusted to measure excellence more accurately across the lines of racial, gender and class difference.

    Geoffrey Canada has a related critique, but a different solution. He objects to the power of merit systems because so many children are excluded from acquiring merit through no fault of their own. Mr. Canada — whose masculinist metaphors, overwhelming concern for boys and explicit blaming of women unsettled me as I tried to attend to his remarks — but believes in the essential correctness of conventional merit systems. They represent, he argues, the “high standards” to which all children should be held. His solution is to direct the same basic resources to all children, regardless of their economic circumstances,resources which do not come from the state but from private philanthropy and the business sector. This strategy “levels the playing field” and allows us to then have the same high expectations of all children. Children then succeed or fail on their own merits.

    Canada’s view of democratic inclusion might be characterized as a neoliberal compromise, and not a transformative solution. More generally, the private non-profits that work to ready a few children for higher education rely on the following premises:

    ·      That because our resources are limited, we need to direct them to children, who still have time to acquire merit;
    ·      That the multiple generations of adults related to these children are too damaged, have become part of the problem and do not merit saving;
    ·      That it is possible to create a more inclusive middle and upper class through projects that select some children for cultivation and then make them visible to elite institutions like Wesleyan;
    ·      That some children, sometimes the siblings and neighbors of those children who have been selected, cultivated and made visible to elite institutions, are left behind because they have no civil right to access private resources;
    ·      That the state has proven itself incapable of the task of assisting the poor, and people of color in particular, and that state transformation is undesirable or impossible.

    And yet, when it bypasses the state and adopts a corporate framework for competitive excellence, community action raises some red flags. There is a reason why the rest of us don’t rely on Bill Gates, Facebook and the Soros Foundation to guarantee our civil rights:  projects sponsored by the private sector are not required to be democratic in the larger sense that the Constitution might guarantee.  Projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which do a tremendous amount of good, nevertheless work within a very conservative value system.  This value system recognizes that merit translates into privilege, that it must be earned, and that in the end, the circle of privilege is a closed one.  Thus, in this model “progress” requires only widening the circle of merit — not critiquing our idea of what constitutes merit in the first place, or understanding why certain bodies — women, of color, queer — have such a difficult time being perceived as meritorious even when they do meet the highest standards. 

    Both the liberal and the neoliberal approach, however, by focusing on what constitutes merit and how one acquires it, are vulnerable from the left, a critique which I would like to outline below:

    • That it is fundamentally unjust to withhold access to an excellent educational institution by creating hierarchies of merit.
    • That affirmative action was, at its inception, a liberal compromise that allowed us to revise the racial order without talking honestly about racism; to revise the gender order without fundamentally disturbing patrairachy; and to not discuss homophobia at all.
    • That radical experiments like open-admissions at New York’s City College in the 1960s were responded to by a liberal state, not by an effort to prepare and invest in all students in the Five Boroughs to receive an excellent education, but by creating barriers of cost.  This began a process of economic exclusion from higher education that has accelerated dramatically in the last two decades;
    • that the blackening and browning of all public schools has loosened the commitment of policymakers to financing education, and strengthened the influence of private schools over educational policy.

    Finally, I would like to say that I don’t think it really matters what happens to the admissions policy at private colleges like Zenith, although it is important to the future of the institution itself to continue to grapple with its contradictions.  But what happens to affirmative action as a national policy, and one that has a huge impact on access to public institutions of higher education, is terribly important.  However flawed it is, in a society that is not in any way post-racial, it is necessary.  Given the unequal distribution of educational resources along the lines of race and class –
    not merit — a distribution that becomes more unequal as public dollars devoted to education shrink, support for affirmative action measures that recognize the effects of inequality are imperative.
    1. Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier, “The Future of Affirmative Action: Reclaiming An Innovative Ideal,” California Law Review (July, 1996).

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