The Myth Of Meritocracy

As affirmative action betrayed the dream of a meritocracy? Will eliminating it finally put Americans on the path to a colorblind, gender-neutral Shangri-La where personal achievement is honored and favoritism defunct? Critics from across the political spectrum argue that it will, as they echo Sen. Jesse Helms's observation that affirmative action "flies in the face of the merit-based society [envisioned by] the Founding Fathers."

Putting aside the question of whether the Founding Fathers really believed a society that consigned most blacks to slavery was "merit-based," the argument that equates opposition to affirmative action with a quest for a meritocracy rings false. It assumes that Americans agree on a definition of a meritocracy, that we desire a meritocracy and that we have a tangible notion of how to bring one about.

None of those propositions is true. Determining real merit is so difficult that we generally find ourselves focusing on test scores. Much of the case against affirmative action ends up being a case for people who test well as opposed to people who don't. But good as tests might be at measuring certain types of intelligence, few people believe they assess overall merit well. No one, for instance, would propose choosing a chairman of a corporation-or even a department head--solely on the basis of a test.

"There are a lot of factors, if we're honest, that we take into account in making any decision," observes UCLA chancellor Charles Young. "A meritocracy that was thoughtless, that looked at only one aspect just the brain and nothing else... would be dullsville."

Most Americans intuitively agree. No angry movement has surfaced, for instance, to protest colleges' offering admission to star athletes or sons and daughters of alumni -even if the beneficiaries are not the most "qualified," and even though a majority of people say they oppose such programs in principle. We go along with them anyway, apparently because we understand that academic merit is not the only relevant consideration.

Much the same attitude prevails in the workplace. The Justice Department has sued Illinois State University for blatantly favoring minorities and women in a janitorial-training program; but virtually no one complains that the janitor's test gives extra points to veterans.

Though many of us claim to reject group preferences in general, we seem more annoyed at some than at others-and particularly at those that appear indefensible. To most Americans, veterans seem more deserving of a group privilege than people who were merely born a particular color or sex. Though no one assumes that veterans wield a meaner mop, people do feel that society owes them something. And they are therefore granted an advantage in employment, even if they are not, by some objective measure, the best candidates for the job.

Undistinguished students related to a university's alumni (so-called legacies) are granted group preference not on the basis of anything they have accomplished but simply because they (and their connections) are deemed to have value--more value, at any rate, some assume, than students whose only apparent contribution is that their group was once "oppressed." And unlike students who win admission on the basis of affirmative action, legacies seem untouched by the stigma of inferiority. As Bob Laird, director of undergraduate admission at the University of California, Berkeley, observed: "I never have the sense of the legacy students [at Harvard] feeling, 'Oh. I don't really belong here.' Or, 'I haven't earned it., The whole thing is, 'Hell, I'm here. That's what counts'."

Critics of affirmative action have not explained how abolishing it can lead to a meritocracy as long as other forms of favoritism continue to flourish. Nor have they shown any real enthusiasm for attacking preferential treatment in all its guises, as opposed to aiming their animus solely at affirmative action. Nor, for that matter, have they demonstrated much of an appetite for stepping up enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, or pouring resources into (and increasing demands on) innercity schools. They are not, by and large, proposing anything that, by distributing society's benefits and opportunities more broadly, might eventually move the nation closer to the meritocracy they profess to desire. Instead of solutions, they are merely offering a scapegoat: this awful thing called affirmative action.

It's easy, and politically expedient, to pretend that everything would be just fine if affirmative action weren't screwing things up. The truth, of course, is much more complicated. Even if the movement to ban affirmative action succeeds, there is every reason to believe we will again find ourselves pondering how to deal with the same difficult questions of racial estrangement and inequity that spawned affirmative action in the first place.

25% think blacks losing out because of racial discrimination Is a bigger problem In the workplace

46% think whites losing out because of affirmative action is a bigger problem