Why Calling Merit Racist Erases People of Color | Opinion

Back in 2018, my fiancée and I went to see Black Panther on opening weekend. As we stood in line for popcorn, we marveled at how many people there were decked out in costumes and traditional African garb to celebrate the occasion. "You should have dressed up, represented your Nigerian heritage," my fiancé said to me. She was kidding about the ancestry.com results I'd just gotten, which showed direct lines from the Dominican Republic, where my parents were born, to multiple spots on the African continent.

"Nah, I'm good," I laughed, but not before a woman ahead of us spun around. "Hi! These are for you," she said, her outstretched hands holding coupons for free concessions. We were delighted, until we saw her making a beeline for a group of black people, skipping many empty-handed non-blacks along the way.

"Oh," my fiancé said. "She thinks you're Nigerian."

At the time I laughed. But the realization left me dejected.

I was reminded of that moment recently when I saw a video of San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Alison M. Collins making the rounds online. "When we talk about merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardized testing, I'm just going to say it," Collins said. "Those are racist systems."

At the heart of these debates is the question of what constitutes fair admissions criteria.

On Oct. 13, 2020, Commissioner Alison Collins said that merit is racist and the "antithesis of fair." (3/7) pic.twitter.com/GrQHDo9pqA

— Sophie Bearman (@stbearman) February 2, 2021

I know what Collins means. The idea of meritocracy—that hard work and tenacity, rather than wealth or social class, lead to success, is a dangerous fantasy, as is the idea that skill is the coin of the realm in America. But there's a critical difference between meritocracy and merit, and the failure to make this distinction leads to proposed solutions that at best exacerbate the problem and at worst cripple those they're trying to help.

Of course, it's true that success is in large part determined by things outside of our control. No one picks their parents, their environment, their upbringing, their temperament, their talents, their capacity to learn, or their capacity to excel. But these factors are all consequential to how our lives turn out. Our society also values certain attributes more than others, praises certain talents more than others, and rewards certain endeavors more than others. We can talk about perseverance all we like, but we cannot escape the fact that in this race, we don't all start on equal footing.

Like Collins, I believe we should strive to correct these inequities. We need to devise and develop other paths to prosperity, more robust social safety nets, and better education systems. We need to talk about solutions that will truly uplift those being harmed by our meritocratic obsession.

But calling merit racist is not the way to do it.

Meritocracy is a kind of tyranny, but merit still matters.

Hearing Collins speak reminded me of that moment before Black Panther because both made me feel the same way. Free popcorn is nice, but I can buy my own; I was already in line to do just that. No doubt the woman's gesture was intended as an act of kindness and recognition, but to know that I was given this concession solely because of my perceived race made me feel unseen.

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I understand the point of view of those trying to even the playing field for minorities such as myself, but if I discovered that my candidacy for a position at an elite school was being prioritized even partly because I'm "brown" and not solely due to the quality of my work, I'd feel not just uncomfortable but insulted. I'd feel my effort and experience were being invalidated, that I was being tokenized, infantilized, and given a participation trophy.

More than that, I would feel erased. That may sound extreme, but it isn't, not when you consider the fact that in order to achieve their goals, the people extending me this concession need to view me primarily as an abstraction, as a box to tick, as another "brown body" in a quota to fill. They may think they're doing this for me, but really they're doing it at me.

Regardless of what side of success we're on, we are often tacitly—and sometimes explicitly—being told we aren't good enough; that we either need to be carried across the finish line or have the finish line cross us where we stand. That notion alone does far more damage to an already downtrodden people than failing to meet any standard ever could.

I know many may disagree with my feelings here, and they wouldn't be bothered at all if they got an edge on the competition based on their race. After all, this reversal of fortune is a long time coming. But in accepting this concession, we're discounting the very real long-term consequences of what is an understandable yet disastrous idea.

In a way, this is what Black Panther is about. Unlike the titular hero, the villain, Erik Killmonger, is a member of the African diaspora. He is Wakanda's abandoned son, left to fend for himself on the streets of Oakland, California, and suffer the way so many African Americans have—while Wakanda, with all its power and prosperity, isolates itself rather than helping its lost children. Killmonger's anger is real and relatable, his hatred and thirst for revenge more than justified. And yet, he remains the villain of the story, because he has decided to resolve his grievance not by eliminating what caused it but by seeking to harm others the way he was harmed. If he were to win, he would only cause more pain and suffering for those he claims to champion—including himself.

Like Collins, Killmonger is partially right; the world is fundamentally unfair. But society need not be. Minority groups have been fighting with two hands tied behind their backs for a very long time. It is our moral duty to do what we can to mitigate those circumstances.

But we also have to recognize that there are better and worse ways—deeper and shallower ways—to address real problems. The shallow ways may bring about a superficial semblance of change, and may even benefit some of us in spite of how people like me feel about it. In the long term, though, shallow solutions cause deeper problems.

Calling merit racist and lowering the standard for people who have been fighting like hell for centuries to be seen as equal only siphons their misery off into a new well. The intentions of people like Collins are admirable, just as the intentions of the woman at the movie theater were admirable, but both leave me feeling inadequate and invisible anyway.

And when something meant to uplift actually does the opposite, it might be time to rethink it.

Angel Eduardo is a writer, musician, and visual artist based in New York City. He is a staff writer and content creator for idealist.org, and a columnist for Center for Inquiry. Find him at angeleduardo.com.

The views in this article are the writer's own.