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.