Opinion | Op-eds

Who deserves what?

We live in a post-racial America where merit and effort are all that matters—or so we are often told. Over the past few weeks, however, we have seen a flurry of student opinions challenging this belief. A few days ago, Andrew Godinich wrote a fascinating article talking about affirmative action (“Skin-deep diversity, April 11). Just two Thursdays ago, CU Habitat for Humanity hosted “Race and the City,” a presentation and discussion about race and homelessness in New York. A few weeks ago, the Black Students Organization hosted a forum on the penal system and the “New Jim Crow.” Many of these opinions clearly argued that race does matter and that ideals of merit are in dire need of reform.

I used to believe in the doctrine of meritocracy and that all citizens should be able to succeed in post-Jim Crow America. But after taking a Barnard class called Ethnic Conflict and Unrest with professor Jacqueline Olvera, I began to see that color-blind practices deeply favor whites, who, in our society, have more money and educational status than blacks and Hispanics. Last semester, I wrote a column (“Discuss wealth inequality with honesty,” Sept. 29) in which I mentioned that white Americans have an average wealth of $98,000 compared to $2,000 for blacks. This wealth disparity then means that whites have access to more resources, helping ensure that their children live in better neighborhoods, go to better schools, do well on standardized tests, and ultimately end up at schools like Columbia—a fact which has upset many of my Columbia classmates.

I have been involved in classroom discussions in which white students voice their concerns with reverse discrimination and with how “unqualified” minorities stole someone’s best friend’s spot, though the friend “truly” deserved it. This point is rather absurd, as affirmative action at Columbia does not pick minorities to fill spots, but rather takes race into account in a general sense to reflect that “merit” favors groups who have more resources. Taken literally, meritocracy idealizes a world in which people with the best grades and highest scores deserve higher status than those with lower marks. What is not surprising, though, is that those with the most merit come from families with the most resources. Well-off Columbia students who disagree should ask themselves what impact wealth had on their services abroad, private tutors, and resource-rich private schools. It had everything to do with their admission, and so, this critique goes out the door.

The mythology of meritocracy also fails when one considers the relationship between wealth and race, especially with blacks. In a previous class called Inequality and Poverty with professor Ashley Timmer, I learned that wealth transfers are the biggest reason children of the wealthy tend to be wealthy themselves. American institutions have for hundreds of years prevented blacks from accumulating capital, and blacks were also not compensated for their years in bondage. Every generation of blacks then found themselves starting almost from nothing, while whites never found themselves in these positions. Even ethnic whites, such as the Germans and Irish, who were both discriminated against, never had to deal with this level of oppression. Their children were not hanged nor mutilated for simply demanding enlightened ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It then seems supercilious to believe that blacks would be able to pull themselves up by their imaginary “bootstraps” in 30 years, overturning more than 300 years of historical silence.

By refusing to see meritocracy for what it is—a system which favors whites—we fail to understand why some people are not eager to change it. It enables exclusion of certain groups while trivializing racial disparities as the fault of minority citizens alone. We all strive to be color-blind, but as students who strive to be intellectually curious and agents of change, we should be alarmed that millions of blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are being left behind. This, to me, is not meritocracy but bogus democracy, and we should all be outraged.

The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. He is a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and a member of the Multicultural Recruitment Committee.

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Anonymous posted on

What are great article! I wish more people saw merit this way. If they did, we could really fix a lot of problems and make this country more equal.  

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Anonymous posted on

 The author fails to answer any of the concerns raised by the Godinich article from last week. He writes about how blacks and a select number of other minority groups are generally economically disadvantaged, but doesn't address the fact that many of the people being helped by affirmative action policies are not disadvantaged. On the contrary, the admissions office selects many of the most economically advantaged minorities to continue to prop up illusions of diversity. "Groups" do not have resources. People do. Admitting the black student from Groton does nothing to help the black student from Watts. The author is doing something proponents of affirmative action policies are often guilty of; to quote the black scholar Thomas Sowell, he is "using race as a proxy for something it is not a proxy for." Race is not a proxy for economic status. Until colleges accept that fact, those who really need and deserve a boost in admissions will not receive their due.

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Anonymous posted on

Simplistic argument that makes allusions to Reparations and again - sadly - divides society along skin color lines instead of socioeconomic lions (as Mr. Godinich's article thoughtfully did). Blames the system for favoring Whites and asserts that minorities have absolutely no way of changing this through the system (wrong). Neglects the fact that there are indeed poor white kids who got into Columbia from public High Schools without tutors etc. Finally, puts the onus of correcting the "problem" on White once again (so that they are paradoxically both the guilty party and only chance for societal reconciliation).

Mostly grammatically correct and free of spelling errors.

C+.

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Anonymous posted on

 The critics have arrived! Thank you both for replying, as I was beginning to wonder where all the skeptics went hiding.
 
I decided to write the article for three main reasons. The first, is out of my general frustration that America as a whole refuses to have interracial discussions on poverty, low-skilled jobs, and the low educational status of blacks. This may stem from our segregated neighborhoods and fears of whites being seen as racists. I am appalled that the bogus professor insinuates that I am dividing the country by talking about racial disparities. How am I dividing when they are true?! By ignoring them we allow them to continue, and as a concerned citizen, I will not let that happen!
 
I am not quite sure why, but race, along with religion, are among the most polarizing discussions Americans can have.  Whites all talk about the position of minorities in society in private settings, or with other whites in public, but the truth remains that in our society, white skin is more valued than darker skin tones. How in the world can we be color blind, when we do not talk about why this ideal still permeates throughout society? Whites also refuse to talk with blacks about issues pertaining to them, such as racial profiling. If race does not matter, then why out of more than 500,000 people in NYC randomly stopped last year by the NYPD, were 80% of them black and Hispanic? I am hoping the Trayvon Martin case will help with these discussions.
 
I don’t think these discussions “divides society along skin color,” and, unfortunately for the CC professor, who is obviously blind, skin tone and socioeconomics are highly correlated. As I mentioned in my article, the wealth gap between blacks and whites are more than $96,000! But, then again, why should whites care about these problems? They don’t because it doesn’t really impact them. I wrote this article to provoke people to have decent conversations, instead of being shot down by people who have no idea what they are talking about.
 
The second reason I wrote this article was to add to what researchers such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Lawrence Bobo have to say on color blind racism. Both say that after the Civil Rights era, a new doctrine emerged on why blacks occupied the lowest position in society. Arguments moved from conceptions of biological inferiority, to ones of culture. The reason many whites today feel blacks are not doing as well as themselves is because they see blacks as lazy and “black culture” as being a hindrances to prosperity. Blacks are then blamed for their own problems because they do not have as much “merit” as whites.
 
The third purpose of the article is that, whether you agree or not, meritocratic practices favor people of mostly privileged backgrounds. It was mentioned that some poor people get through the door, but only about 10% of children born in poverty actually make it to college. Hmmm…imagine that?! This leads to my main point, which is that dominant groups, who are currently whites in America, have always felt entitled to valuable resources in our world. When dominant groups feel threatened by others who want a piece of the pie, they feel the need to institute policies which prevent that from happening. In post Civil Rights America, it is not politically correct to explicitly exclude blacks based on race, although merit comes exceptionally close. This is the case as merit is related to money, which is highly related to race.
From the way both of you sound, I take it you are white males, who are upset that I am trying to advocate that resources be shared more appropriately in our democracy. That is correct. I also take from the way both of you are talking that you are neither historians nor sociologists. My only advice for you both is that you open your eyes, read a history book (a good one), reflect a bit, and walk around. If you take these steps, then I am sure you will reach the same conclusion I have. For the CC Professor, especially, I suggest you teach a sociology class, because, I think, you may learn something along the way.
 
That is all for now anonymous critics, but if you ever want to talk in person, so I can tell you how the world REALLY works, search me in the directory. I have no need to hide my identity, unlike you both, because I am right. How do I know you may ask? I know because I have eyes and I look around.
 
Good night, and good luck with your reading. I suggest"Prejudice as Group Position: Microfoundations of a Sociological Approach to Racism and Race Relations" by Lawrence Bobo. -JelaniThe Author
"Prejudice as Group Position: Microfoundations of a Sociological Approach to Racism and Race Relations" by Lawrence Bobo.

-Jelani

The Author

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Anonymous posted on

 Jelani,

I can tell that you are very passionate about this issue. However, I ask you to keep an open mind. If you believe you know and can impart to us "how the world REALLY works," there is no way we can have a productive discussion. As for remaining anonymous, my peers and I choose to do so out of fear of the many potential repercussions associated with voicing a conservative opinion on the Columbia campus. Our anonymity, however, does not detract from the substance of our arguments.

You make many claims in your comment, but I think the point at which your argument falls is here: "skin tone and socioeconomics are highly correlated." You're right that blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately poor, but you're wrong that affirmative action is the way to address the problem. Affirmative action disproportionately helps middle class and especially wealthy minorities, which is exactly what the Godinich article addresses. Please explain to me how accepting the son of the black surgeon who lives in the same neighborhood and goes to the same prep school as the son of the white surgeon helps address the socioeconomic problems black people face. Your problem is that you see people primarily as parts of a racial group and only secondarily as individuals. The reality is the inverse. There are rich blacks and poor blacks, just as there are rich whites and poor whites, rich Hispanics and poor Hispanics, and rich Asians and poor Asians. I would wager that if the financial aid office were to compare the average family income of black students with the average family income of the general student body, the numbers would be roughly the same.

I'll bet you didn't know that our admissions office physically affixes a special tag to black, Hispanic, and Native American applicants. So please explain to me how giving according the son of the black surgeon a special preference over the
son of the Chinatown restaurant worker addresses the problems of
economic inequality in our country. And yet, when an admissions officer sees the last name "Lee" or "Chen," he will hold that applicant to a higher standard than his black and even white peers. That example, to me, seems to belie basic ideas of fairness. Affirmative action should be based on economic status, not race.

-commonsense

Oh, and contrary to your assumption, I am not a white male. You don't need to be a white male to see the problems with affirmative action.

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Anonymous posted on

I agree as well. I feel socioeconomics would be a better marker than race, as I would support a poor white person who has struggled gaining admission over a rich black person if they are on equal footing. The main point of the article is not that affirmative action is the solution, but that merit fails to take into account that resources are allocated disproportionately in favor of whites in our society. The point is that either everyone gets test prep or no one gets it. That, to me, is true meritocracy. The fact that doesn’t happen means that the playing field simply is not fair, and therefore, needs to be reevaluated. Maybe affirmative action is not the solution, but it is a small step considering that although rich blacks exist, the numbers simply are not enough to say we should eliminate policies such as affirmative action away.
By stating that there are rich blacks, you are saying this means that all blacks should be able to make it. This is not the case, and although people are individuals, that fact that there are macro disparities between blacks and whites, and intergenerational poverty of the same groups namely (black, urban, poor) says that something is systemically wrong with our society. I could sit here and argue all day, but we are both entitled to our opinions. My main problem with the conservative worldview pertaining to race, though, is that the world is much more complicated than you all think it is. Who runs the banks? The housing market? Our government? Whites do.
A facet of group position theory is that people with power like to keep power. Agree with me, or not, whites control the most powerful institutions in our society as a result of slavery, and have no reason to change that. As I mention time and time again with the articles I write, we live in a democracy where all people should have a voice and be given equal representation. This simply is not true as whites and the wealthy are given more opportunities to voice their concerns. Since we live in a country like this, the white mind frame permeates throughout political discourse. Everything you say supports this worldview, which, is something I want to provoke people to conceptualize. The only thing I can say is that, unfortunately, you have bought this deception.
Jelani

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Anonymous posted on

Jelani, you just suck at arguing. 

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You voted '-1'.