Meritocracy or Bias?

Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, August 13, 2013

Critics of affirmative action generally argue that the country would be better off with a meritocracy, typically defined as an admissions system where high school grades and standardized test scores are the key factors, applied in the same way to applicants of all races and ethnicities.

But what if they think they favor meritocracy but at some level actually have a flexible definition, depending on which groups would be helped by certain policies? Frank L. Samson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Miami, thinks his new research findings suggest that the definition of meritocracy used by white people is far more fluid than many would admit, and that this fluidity results in white people favoring certain policies (and groups) over others.

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The white adults in the survey were also divided into two groups. Half were simply asked to assign the importance they thought various criteria should have in the admissions system of the University of California. The other half received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state.

When informed of that fact, the white adults favor a reduced role for grade and test scores in admissions–apparently based on high achievement levels by Asian-American applicants. (Nationally, Asian average total scores on the three parts of the SAT best white average scores by 1,641 to 1,578 this year.)

When asked about leadership as an admissions criterion, white ranking of the measure went up in importance when respondents were informed of the Asian success in University of California admissions.

“Sociologists have found that whites refer to ‘qualifications’ and a meritocratic distribution of opportunities and rewards, and the purported failure of blacks to live up to this meritocratic standard, to bolster the belief that racial inequality in the United States has some legitimacy,” Samson writes in the paper. “However, the results here suggest that the importance of meritocratic criteria for whites varies depending upon certain circumstances. To wit, white Californians do not hold a principled commitment to a fixed standard of merit.”

Samson raises the idea that white perception of “group threat” from Asians influences ideas about admissions criteria–suggesting that they are something other than pure in their embrace of meritocratic approaches.

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