The Missing Black Students at Elite American Universities, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader quotes an earlier one:

Either quotas need to be introduced (again) to keep Jews and Asians at their “rightful” level, or the disproportions need to be accepted as a natural outcome of a meritocracy where some groups outshine others … until the laggard groups somehow change their achievement levels.

This response to me is woefully ignorant of American history, where some groups (Jews and Asians) were given social privileges not provided to other groups. Jews and Asians were never politically segregated to the same degree as Black Americans (i.e. slavery, Jim Crow South, segregation, anti-Black housing policy, a criminal justice system that penalizes Blacks/Hispanics more than other races for similar crimes).

These differences in racialized experiences does not erase the discrimination faced by Jews and Asians in the American context. However, not all racialized experiences are the same. Communities with different racialized experiences, especially communities such as African/Black and Native/Indigenous/Aboriginal Americans, whose socio-political oppression built the foundation of the modern U.S., should not be compared with those whose oppression in this country is less entrenched.

As a non-American (South-Asian Canadian), I find the North American narrative of meritocracy to be very interesting.

Outside of Europe and North America, people tend not to assume that their personal life achievements are entirely merit based. In South Asia, personal success is understood explicitly as a not only a product of individual work ethic and habits, but also other factors such as ethnicity, language, caste, gender, socio-economic class of family, family social network, geographic location etc. Working hard and being persistent only reaps rewards if you belong to the right combination of these factors (i.e. upper class, upper caste, male, fluent in English, urban). An individual who does not belonging to this right combination will almost never get the same opportunities(i.e. a slum dweller from Mumbai can work harder and more persistently than a middle class, upper-class, English speaking Mumbaite, but he/she will almost never achieve any social mobility).

The North American narrative of meritocracy is extremely problematic because it allows people in positions of power to believe that their personal and social successes are determined by a single factor, work ethics and habits, and to ignore the role that race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic class have played in their success. This narrative also allows these individuals ignore the suffering of others by blaming any lack of success on personal moral failings, thereby removing any impetuous for social change.

Your thoughts? Drop me an email and I’ll likely post. Update from a reader:

The reader argues that “not all racialized experiences are the same” and claims that Jews and Asians “were given social privileges not provided to other groups.” The fundamental problem with this line of thinking was expressed clearly by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson:

To accept Richmond’s claim that past societal discrimination alone can serve as the basis for rigid racial preferences would be to open the door to competing claims for ‘remedial relief’ for every disadvantaged group. The dream of a Nation of equal citizens in a society where race is irrelevant to personal opportunity and achievement would be lost in a mosaic of shifting preferences based on inherently unmeasurable claims of past wrongs.

A discussion on whose ancestors were oppressed more or oppressed enough is not likely to be a productive one. Furthermore, a disproportionate amount of black students at prestigious universities that practice affirmative action are immigrants or their children. If we really want to delve into the past and measure the level of oppression our ancestors experienced in the U.S., we would have to employ the same tools that were once used to disenfranchise blacks, such as grandfather clauses. The irony is perverse.