Since long before Abigail Fisher was born, university admissions policies in the United States have been highly subjective, responding to the desires and needs of society and the academic institution itself. Race-based affirmative action is a part of the picture, and it symbolizes a deep commitment on the part of colleges and universities to the pursuit of racial justice in a country plagued by extreme racial inequality. And it’s hard to argue the programs are no longer necessary. Black Americans are still more than twice as likely to be poor as white Americans; black children are more likely to attend underperforming, racially segregated schools than white children; and whites with a criminal record are more likely to receive a callback on job applications than blacks with no criminal record.
More than 50 years ago, British sociologist Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy.” He intended the term to have negative connotations, referring to a dystopia in which the elite use notions of merit to justify and maintain their status across generations. He portrayed a future in which promotion, pay and school admissions would be used to reward elites for their class-based cultural know-how rather than for qualities attainable by anyone in society.
If the Supreme Court ruling in the Fisher case bans the consideration of factors that promote racial equality and justice in admissions decisions, but allows universities to continue considering other kinds of non-academic “merit” that increase inequality, we will be one step closer to the kind of dysfunctional “meritocracy” Young envisioned.
Natasha Kumar Warikoo is an assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of “Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City.”