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White Privileged Mythical Meritocracy

White Privileged Mythical Meritocracy

In a May 27, 2016 article entitled, “Inside Student Radicalism”, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about a peculiar quandary many liberal arts students find themselves in. He said:

“Students face a unique set of pressures. On the professional side life is competitive, pressured, time-consuming, capitalistic and stressful. On the political side many elite universities are home to an ethos of middle-aged leftism. The general atmosphere embraces feminism, civil rights, egalitarianism and environmentalism, but it is expressed as academic discourse, not as action on the streets. This creates a tension in the minds of some students. On the professional side they are stressed and exhausted. On the political, spiritual and moral side they are unfulfilled.”

The point of his argument seems to be—students spend four years steeped in leftist theory only to find themselves dissatisfied and unfulfilled in their careers after leaving college because, as he puts it, “We ask students to work harder and harder while providing them with less and less of an idea of how they might find a purpose in all that work.” The point of this portion of his piece is that the egalitarianism of college life doesn't prepare them psychologically to compete in an amoral capitalist society. He doesn't get any arguments from me on that one.

The article is short and worth the read. He makes a couple of sound points like the one noted above but he also goes into cringe-worthy territory. One paragraph I found particularly troubling was written in response to a list of demands made by a group of students at Oberlin College. Allow me to set the stage.

A group of Oberlin students voiced dissatisfaction with the way their college is run, stating that their institution “functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and a cis-sexist heteropatriarchy.”

Writing in his article, David Brooks responded:

The identity politics the students have produced inverts the values of the meritocracy. The meritocracy is striving toward excellence; identity politics is deeply egalitarian. The meritocracy measures you by how much you’ve accomplished; identity politics measures you by how much you’ve been oppressed. In the meritocracy your right to be heard is earned through long learning and quality insight; in identity politics your right to be heard is earned by your experience of discrimination. The meritocracy places tremendous emphasis on individual agency; identity politics argues that agency is limited within a system of oppression.

Because he doesn't shed light on what he means by “the” meritocracy, for arguments sake, let's assume that Brooks is using the term to describe a political philosophy that holds that power and wealth should be vested in the hardest working, most competent individuals. He then juxtaposes the egalitarian views of the Oberlin students against this framework, indirectly suggesting that they oppose hard work and competence as criteria for advancement in society.

But the Oberlin student's voiced opposition to maintaining a status quo that is ableist, imperialist, white-supremist, capitalist, cissexist heteropatriarchical doesn't "invert the values of the meritocracy" as Brooks asserts. Their position is one that favors true meritocratic values. The students are arguing that our current systems are anti-meritocratic—that the deck is stacked and that it is not possible to create meritocracy until these systems of privilege are exposed and dismantled.

This persistent belief that advancement in our educational, economic, judicial, social and political systems are primarily merit-based don't stand up to critical analysis. Brooks' simplistic view flies in the face of research conducted by a long line of social scientists who have concluded that persistent inequity in the United States has more to do with the accumulation of unearned advantages than to an individuals lack of work ethic.

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In her book Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage, USC Law Professor and author Daria Roithmayr discusses the locked-in nature of white advantage. She makes clear how one unmerited advantage builds upon another, having a cumulative effect that, after awhile, results in a system of unfair advantage. She also talks about the inverse, the cumulative effect of the unfair disadvantage.

George Monbiot of the Guardian summed it up nicely when he said, “If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.”

The fact that David Brooks is a nationally known syndicated talking head makes his remarks all the more irresponsible. To the uninitiated, Brooks' position would be quite sensible and even persuasive had it not started from a false premise -- that we are all on a level playing field.

Here is some food for thought. Social scientists have conducted any number of studies over the last 20 years that demonstrate that white men continue to live in a society that largely renders them immune to biases that women and people of color face daily. Here are just a few of the findings.

  • When doctors were presented with patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization to black patients — even when their medical files were statistically identical to those of white patients.
  • When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.
  • Several studies found that emails sent by users with stereotypically black names got fewer responses to apartment-rental ads on Craigslist than emails from people with white sounding names.
  • A regularly repeated study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sent African-Americans and whites to look at apartments and found that African-Americans were shown fewer apartments to rent and houses for sale.
  • White state legislators were found to be less likely to respond to constituents with African-American names. This was true of legislators in both political parties.
  • A landmark study by Princeton sociologist Devah Pager found that white felons where more than twice as likely to get a callback from a potential employer than blacks who had no criminal record; one study found employers were hesitant to pick applicants with black-sounding names.

For David Brooks, sitting from a place of privilege, it's easy to spout nonsense about a meritocracy that is as mythical today has it ever was.

Sharon Kyle 2013

Sharon Kyle