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Myth: Affirmative Action Disregards Merit

B. Myth: Affirmative Action Disregards "Merit"
A second myth is that affirmative action disregards merit by rewarding unqualified beneficiaries (read women of color), which consequently punishes otherwise qualified persons (read white men). The myth goes that unqualified beneficiaries are rewarded with opportunities which they do not deserve, while qualified persons are being denied those same opportunities. Many people believe the merit myth and resent affirmative action because of it. They see affirmative action as taking away an entitlement which would exist but for affirmative action. This rage is flamed by employers' statements such as "I would hire you in a second if you were black." In fact, at the time when a Newsweek employee was alleged to have made the preceding remark, "only four reporters, one staff writer, and one editor out of 200-plus editorial employees at Newsweek were black." This type of inflammatory remark creates damage to the fourth degree from the perspective of a woman of color. First, she may experience discrimination as a woman. Second, she may experience discrimination independent of her gender or compounded by her gender because of her race or ethnicity. Third, white males may resent her because they are being told that they cannot get jobs because of her--she is scapegoated as well as discriminated against. Fourth, and perhaps most damaging, according to the statistics earlier in this part, she is probably not getting the coveted spot anyway. If you need proof for yourself, visit a law school classroom, a medical school laboratory, or the executive offices of a Fortune 500 company. Once there, the mythic nature of this claim becomes apparent through the absence of women of color.
Another sub-myth to the merit myth is the idea that white male candidates are evaluated and qualify for positions or entry strictly based on merit, while women of color are evaluated in spite of merit. Aside from being inaccurate, this myth feeds the related sub-myths that the merit system is objective and that white males have not been the beneficiaries of special treatment.
Let me first address the story that women of color are evaluated in spite of merit. Women of color must qualify for admission or hire under standards that apply to all applicants or candidates. Thus, affirmative action does not operate to elevate an unqualified woman of color to qualified status. Among a group of qualified candidates, however, affirmative action should operate to provide a woman of color with a "plus" for her status as a woman of color. But that does not always happen. In a study on employment discrimination, potential employers prevented African-American job applicants from advancing to equivalent interviews or hiring levels as white applicants with the exact same qualifications at least twenty percent of the time. Another study suggested that, "Hispanic testers were three times as likely to encounter unfavorable treatment when applying for jobs as were closely matched Anglos."
If affirmative action operated as intended, women of color should not only initially qualify under systems that look to their relative merit, but they should also be able to advance at the same rate as their male counterparts. That is not happening either, and it may not have much to do with merit. Once women of color are in the door, they face unique challenges. Different standards are often applied to them or, alternatively, the stated standards which are routinely ignored for others, are diligently applied to them. For example, there are higher expectations for women of color. It is not enough to be average; one must be above-average to get the confidence of peers and superiors. In addition, supervisors frequently provide little or no mentoring or training, women of color receive minimal exposure to influential people or clients who can help with advancement, and women of color work double-duty, often living divided lives, trying to fit in.
The second merit sub-myth is that merit is objective. Those who chant that "objective merit" alone should control one's admission or acceptance rely heavily on supposedly neutral criteria, such as standardized test scores, while ignoring or devaluing qualifications or attributes that make women of color unique. Some critics of this sub-myth argue that the definition of merit which looks only to standardized test scores is not truly objective, and they are not alone in this assessment. One critic discussed the misconception of objective merit as follows:
Outside of sports and certain technical specialties, merit tends to be defined subjectively, primarily by attaching complimentary labels to those who are thought to be meritorious: people who are "fast starters," who "have potential," who show style or demonstrate leadership or otherwise have the mystical "right stuff" that will take them to the top. Once they have risen, as predicted, it is assumed they did so on merit--a reassuring if circular assumption. But what it fails to take into account is the real possibility that merit, objectively defined, has relatively little to do with who gets ahead.
The current application of "objective" merit looks primarily to standardized tests to determine intelligence and the likelihood of succeeding in college. The University of California took this to heart by dismantling its affirmative action program out of its desire to "treat all Californians equally and fairly." But by dismantling affirmative action, rather than treating all Californians equally and fairly, it elevates privileged Californians who attend better quality schools, who have been raised in households where education is valued and emphasized, and whose families can spend more on their children's educations.
Objective merit's obeisance to test scores not only privileges the already privileged, it ignores many positives that women of color contribute which cannot necessarily be measured in test scores. Follow me through a couple of days in Lilia's life. Lilia just finished her last high school class of the week and she is on her way to her waitressing job at Hasta Manana. It is a busy night and she is hustling, taking orders, and serving beer, margaritas, and food. By the end of the evening, she is exhausted. She washes her face, changes out of her work shoes into her tennis shoes, and heads home. Mama greets her with a kiss and asks her, "%?tienes hambre?" Lilia answers, "si, mama, quiero algo de comer mientras estoy haciendo mi tarea." Before Lilia can get to her homework, her little brother Paco runs out, hugs her, and begs her to read him a bedtime story. She obliges and reads him "La Cama de Mama."
Once Paco is asleep, Lilia pulls her history book out of a tattered day pack and starts her homework. There are some things she is not quite clear on, but she knows she cannot ask her mama about them. No need to lose time, so she continues. By midnight, she is fast asleep over her book. Mama gently wakes her and sends her to bed.
The next morning, Lilia wakes early, feeds her little sister Isabella, and gets ready to tutor grammar school children in English. She recalls her early struggles with English and is happy she can work with others who are going through those same struggles. After a few hours at the elementary school, she is off to Hasta Manana. She completes a full shift, goes home, and helps her mama with laundry. This is a snapshot of her life--not unusual days.
Let us fast forward to a college admissions office. Lilia's SAT scores and grade point average are good, not great. But if an admissions office defined Lilia's merit based only on her SAT scores and high school grades, it would overlook many of her unquantifiable strengths--her ability to juggle many competing interests at once and to work efficiently, her willingness to embrace family and to turn around and lift up those behind her, and her success without the benefits of a personal computer, a personal tutor, or the time that would have been freed up to devote to school and studies had she not been working.
A large percentage of women of color live below the poverty level, and that circumstance may teach them greater self-sufficiency and how to make the most out of the little they have. Also, they may learn how to work more efficiently, especially if they are single parents who are working, raising children, and going to school. However, these characteristics, strengths or gifts are not measured in standardized test scores. It is unfair to disregard the special gifts which the Lilias of the world have to offer because they are neither quantifiable nor traditionally valued. Thus, merit based on talents other than standardized test scores should be considered. Affirmative action helps recognize these other talents and therefore must continue in order to help women of color have equal opportunities.
The third merit sub-myth stems from the idea that white males have not benefited from special treatment. To the contrary, preferential treatment has been with us since the founding of this country, usually for the benefit of white middle- to upper-income males. When it is used to perpetuate the status quo, it hardly causes a ripple. When, however, it is used to make opportunities more widely available for women, minorities, and women of color, there is an outcry. In response to a tirade by a white male about how affirmative action harmed him for the benefit of "unqualified minorities," Ellis Cose took him to task:
When the young man paused to catch his breath, I took the occasion to observe that it seemed more than a bit hypocritical of him to rage on about preferential treatment. A person of modest intellect, he had gotten into Harvard largely on the basis of family connections. His first summer internship, with the White House, had been arranged by a family member. His second, with the World Bank, had been similarly arranged. . . . In short, he was already well on his way to a distinguished career--a career made possible by preferential treatment.
As Cose pointed out, "[o]ne cannot honestly and intelligently discuss hostility to preferential treatment without examining attitudes toward those who benefit from the treatment." In other words, much of the hostility toward affirmative action may arise more from racism, sexism, or a desire to preserve the status quo. It is time to explore these attitudes further to get at the heart of many people's resistance to affirmative action. While the discussion is sure to be volatile, there is no way around the discussion.
Related to the third merit sub-myth that white males do not receive preferences is the notion that there is an abundance of scholarships for minorities and women of color, with white students thus being denied significant privileges. The reality is that:
The GAO, in a 1994 study found that at the undergraduate level, scholarships (from all funding sources) for which minority status is the only requirement for eligibility are rare, accounting for less than 0.25% of all scholarship monies; that scholarships for which minority status is one of several requirements for eligibility represent about 3% of scholarship monies; and that scholarships for which minority status is one factor among many considered are somewhat more common. On the other hand, [Department of Education] officials note that there are countless scholarship programs which are limited to white students, at least de facto, because of some condition on family origins, membership in some social or fraternal organization, family affiliation with the particular school, etc. To further reduce the very small percentage of scholarships that are awarded to minorities because of their minority status would be a travesty. It seems that affirmative action critics have been blinded by the logs in their eyes, so they cannot see that those currently "harmed" by affirmative action have in fact been beneficiaries of implicit affirmative action or preferential treatment for at least one hundred years.
Recognizing the various sub-myths, it is easier to understand the popularity of the myth that affirmative action disregards merit. Otherwise, one would have to accept the ideas that a woman of color might actually be qualified for a position, that she may be better qualified than a white male, and that some white males may not be as qualified as they think they are. By continuing to offer alternative definitions of merit, we can help dispel this myth and perhaps do away with the need for affirmative action for women of color. But until other definitions of merit are accepted, it is crucial to preserve affirmative action for women of color because it allows them a path, albeit narrow, to opportunity. Furthermore, even under the standard definition of merit, because of unproven assumptions of incompetence for women of color and competence for white men, affirmative action helps women of color by giving them a chance to prove competence--whereas without affirmative action, the assumption would continue with little opportunity to disprove it.