Two stories recently in the news—proposals to pay reparations to Black Americans to compensate for the legacy of slavery and the SAT’s new “adversity score” that is meant to quantify the unique personal challenges faced by some college applicants—speak to our nation’s desire to lend a helping hand to those who have suffered through no fault of their own. We have traditionally distinguished between those whom we deem complicit in creating their own problems and those whom we believe are innocent victims of circumstances beyond their control. This dichotomy explains why, for example, Americans are typically far more sympathetic to the plight of undocumented “Dreamers” who were snuck into the U.S. by their parents as children compared to our often more punitive attitudes toward adults detained for illegal entry—we perceive that adults have choices but children have none.
The quest for equity both drives and complicates our political discussions today. The desire of many to promote policies that encourage diversity in many facets of our public life—particularly in education and employment—is born of the belief that discrimination and its resulting inequities must be remedied through the direct intervention of affirmative action programs. These policies, however, often collide headlong with our other commitment to meritocracy—the belief that it is the most fair that positions or promotions go to the most talented or most qualified—because some believe these meritocratic systems are reinforcing historic wrongs by penalizing individuals whose ancestors were denied advantages that more privileged groups now take for granted.
It could be reasonably argued that a great deal of the stark political divide in America today revolves around vastly differing ideas regarding who is actually victimized by the non-meritocratic systems now often used to create a more fair society. Those who are favored by affirmative action policies see it as a case of justice deferred being finally set right; those who feel college admissions or jobs are being handed to someone with fewer qualifications than them believe that their hard work is being ignored in pursuit of someone else’s social justice goals, which are denying them opportunities—or ruining their lives.
The old joke that “a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged” might actually be more accurate today if it stated that many conservatives are formerly liberal (or politically moderate) individuals who believe affirmative action policies have harmed them or their families. I suspect that the shock of the 2016 Presidential election might be less surprising if we paid more attention to this perhaps pervasive factor, which is less indicative of systemic racism or sexism and more about an individual frustration with remedies that seem abundantly unfair to those caught on the wrong end of society’s great solution to all that ails or divides us.
Our individual support—or lack of it—for affirmative action programs, reparations, or other programs and ideas designed to enforce “fairness” are often directly related to our own beliefs about the current prevalence of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other attitudes that lead to discriminatory attitudes or behaviors. Having no direct and reliable method to measure what is going on in everyone’s minds at each particular moment, we seem to have taken a “better safe than sorry” approach in many educational and workplace situations, presuming that everyone has some level of hatred or disdain in their hearts and heads, which accounts for the popularity of workshops and training that are meant to promote greater sensitivity and tolerance toward all. The obvious added benefit of teaching everyone how to be polite and sensitive is, in the minds of managers mandating more and more of this type of activity, the implied promise of avoiding the legal or regulatory actions that might result if everyone at your school or workplace has not signed a form confirming they have been explicitly informed that acting like a jerk is strictly forbidden—never underestimate the power of lawyers who crave a big payday when it comes to shaping our daily lives.
Those who look at the diversity of our political, cultural, and entertainment icons and see a cross-section that captures the amazing richness of our nation—combined with the election (and re-election) of Barack Obama to our nation’s highest office—feel that this is clear evidence our country has left its history of overtly hateful behaviors and laws far behind us. Others, however, point to the election of Donald Trump and his administration’s apparent lack of interest in pursuing affirmative action policies as equally persuasive proof of a white backlash that aims to quash the aspirations of many by reasserting discriminatory policies disguised as meritocracy.
All these discussions become even more fraught when matters pertaining to the use of standardized testing for school or college admissions are added to the discussion. Many believe that evidence-based studies prove that these tests are either themselves discriminatory or actually act as proxies for measuring outcomes, such as family wealth and the resulting ability to afford pricey “test prep” courses, that are nothing more than artifacts of historic discrimination. Therefore, the continued use of these tests to determine admissions might perpetuate inequities and deny diversity.
On the other hand, others point to the predictive value of these standardized tests regarding long-term academic and career success. In addition, they believe that quota systems meant to circumvent them—which in some cases have reduced the number of seats available to Asian-American students in order to admit Blacks and Latinos who scored lower—are a perverse and damaging rejection of the color-blind meritocracy these tests purport to promote.
The resolution of the many lawsuits regarding these matters will likely only further inflame tensions regarding whether reliance upon standardized tests in admissions decisions is “fair” or not. In addition, we have no assurance that the best efforts of schools and colleges to mitigate the effects of the many factors that impact academic readiness or success will not result in other types of subtle discrimination if human judgments and intuitions, which are sometimes flawed or easily manipulated, suddenly become the ultimate factor in determining admissions.
Moreover, we have to worry whether ditching these standardized tests will ultimately result in the return of the “old boy network” of personal connections in admissions decisions, which is exactly what the use of these tests was designed to end. Will seats at the best schools end up going to children whose parents know how to twist the system and, sadly enough, return us to an incredibly unfair reality that at one time allowed those with wealth and power to readily and regularly perpetuate their advantages across generations by subtly—and often invisibly—using their influence to open doors for their own children?
It is good that we have these conversations. Our nation’s ongoing commitment to justice is a feature of our nation that we should celebrate at every turn, and the passions that inform these discussions are a tribute to the continued vibrancy of our civic culture. The debate regarding the form, function, and outcomes of traditional meritocratic systems of placement and promotion has become a mirror reflecting a broader societal evaluation of our nation’s progress—or perhaps lack thereof—in creating a nation that is more welcoming toward all.
How we parcel out seats at selective colleges and universities, whom we choose to govern us, what factors we feel are important in evaluating employee talent and performance—and ultimately how we choose to define ourselves and our communities—will be that which will determine the direction of our diverse, fascinating, and argumentative country in the years and decades ahead. Although the discussions of these issues often feature the worst insults and stereotypes being tossed about by some, we need to continue to pursue an evaluation of these questions and encourage thoughtful consideration of the moral and ethical matters that are inevitably raised as we proceed.