Friday, July 3, 2009

America and the myth of meritocracy

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is upon us. Fireworks, backyard bbqs, and a rhetoric of freedom and democracy permeate the air in the U.S. right now. And so I think it's appropriate to think about the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that will have lasting repercussions for how we think about race and hiring. Very specifically and recently, the Supreme Court ruled (5-4) in favor of the white fire fighters (and sole Latino) from New Haven who sued the City of New Haven for throwing out test scores that would have been used for the promotion of fire fighters into leadership positions. And in today's New York Times, there is an article about the sole Latino firefighter, Ben Vargas, and the flack that he has been receiving from other fire fighters of color and his resolve and reasoning for going ahead with the lawsuit, to quote Mr. Vargas (who is of Puerto Rican descent) on the impact this will have on his sons, he said:

“I want them to have a fair shake, to get a job on their merits and not because they’re Hispanic or they fill a quota”

Merit. There lies the rub. Mr. Vargas earlier in the article declared himself to be an "American" and that as proud as he is of being Puerto Rican, the opportunities he has for advancement could happen no place but in the United States. Mr. Vargas, the white firefighters, in the suit, and their attorney all believe in a system of meritocracy--in fact, their lawyer, Karen Lee Torre declared that the men had

“become a symbol for millions of Americans who have grown tired of seeing individual achievement and merit take a back seat to race and ethnicity.”

It all sounds good on its face. Lets evaluate people solely on merit. Let the person who does the best job get the job. Let the person who is the best manager/leader secure the promotion.

But don't we all realize that this is NOT the way it works? And the idea that affirmative action is being touted as an unfair system of racial preference is galling.

Because let me say that I agree with Ms. Torre. I think that plenty of people are tired of seeing individual achievement and merit take a back seat to race and ethnicity--except I like to refer to it as the period of U.S. history starting from colonial times before the Republic had taken shape through to our present day when implicit biases let alone conscious feelings/values of discrimination plague all Americans.

If we are supposed to celebrate freedom and democracy this weekend, let me remind everyone that the U.S. was founded on free and cheap labor, mainly by people who were darker or more foreign than the European colonists and eventual Euro-Americans who gained power and prominence in this country. So there is something to celebrate for the darker Mediterranean European immigrants who were originally vilified and then overcame their inherent "ethnic" difference to melt into the pot of American idealism. But for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and the numerous American Indian tribes "melting" wasn't really ever an option and centuries of messages about racialized "difference" and the values of discrimination and prejudice are hard to overcome. That they have been to the extent that we have many important people of color in powerful positions is something to celebrate. And I'm not even referring to Barack Obama's election--even before Obama there have been numerous people of color who lived through Jim Crow discrimination or faced other hostile climates in which they were told that they were less-than or un-American. And they succeeded to top posts and positions of authority.

But here's the thing. Prejudice--our gut level reaction to someone of a different race, or even someone of our same race--that stuff is so embedded in our individual AND collective psyches, it's hard to overcome. And we can't learn to dismantle bigotry until we recognize it and own it and work to understand just how privilege operates. And to understand that if someone is living with oppression in this nation, then we aren't really the land of the free.

I know I'm mainly preaching to the choir on this issue, but for those of you skeptical or on the fence (or for those of you wanting to find more rationales to help you combat others' assertions that we are living in a color-blind, postracial world) let me direct you to some interesting articles/resources:

*The Myth of Meritocracy. Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller Jr. of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, have published an article and a book on the myth of meritocracy. They have some compelling evidence for why meritocracy isn't a truly equitable means of distribution in the U.S.--why the myth of the "American Dream" has brainwashed us into thinking that we are all capable of lifting ourselves up and getting ahead on our individual merit/talent/intelligence without recognizing systems of inequity that have always plagued U.S. society (and really, racism/white privilege is but one--discrimination based on gender/sexuality/religion/class have also predominated within U.S. history).

*Claude Steele's research on stereotype threat is still as pertinent today as it was when he first began running his lab at Stanford--and the article in The Atlantic "Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat and Black College Students" in 1999 is still relevant 10 years later on the subject of why biases and prejudices impact our own abilities.

*Raina Kelley has an interesting piece in this week's Newsweek, "The Roots of Racism: What we don't know can hurt us"--in particular, you should think about the IAT...

*The IAT: Implicit Association Test. This was a test developed by researchers to measure our internal biases and prejudices. There are a variety of tests you can take on-line. I did one measuring connections between Asian Americans vs. European Americans and which group is more "American" and/or "Foreign." Interestingly my score said that I have a slight bias towards believing that Asian Americans are more "American" and that European Americans are more "foreign." In some respects I'm not surprised, since I've been trained through my PhD and my current research to really react to any associations of Asians as foreign--apparently so much so that I see Asian Americans as REALLY American. Anyway, you should try it for yourself (click here).

There you go. Four links for some Fourth of July reading on what it means to be an American in today's society. By all means, enjoy the fireworks and the hot dogs and hamburgers. And celebrate America's birth as a nation. But also remember that while we talk about freedom and democracy and who counts as a "real" American, we need to remember that not everyone feels these things and maybe being a real American is understanding our past history, warts and all, and working to make a better future. After all, open dissent and criticism is probably the most American act you can participate in.

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