Boil the American Dream down to a single maxim and it’s this: “If you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to get what’s yours.” Our mutual commitment to meritocracy is, we’re told, about as central to our national character as baseball. Divvying up gains based on ability and hard work (as oppposed to, say, your family’s social status, race or religion) is not only a workable way to organize an economically productive society—it also seems fundamentally fair.
But according to a recent study out of the University of Miami, it would seem that some people—namely, white Americans—only subscribe to this Horatio Alger version of the American Dream as long as it works in their favor.
UM sociology professor Frank L. Samson asked 599 California adults how they believed the University of California system should determine the eligibility of prospective students. The white respondents specifically were divided into two groups. In the first, the adults were simply asked to rank the importance of various criteria. By and large, they preferred hard metrics that were the most obvious and easy to quantify, such as high school grade point average.
But respondents of the second group were “primed” with a statistic about how Asian-Americans made up a disproportionately large share of the student body: they represented just 12 percent of the state population but 40 percent of students in the UC system. Suddenly, in the estimation of these white Californians, GPA fell out of favor. Instead, they placed a much greater emphasis on other, somewhat squishier standards, such as “community service” and particularly “leadership.”
Not coincidentally, Asian American high schoolers earn an average GPA of 3.09, compared to 2.88 for white students. The same pattern is repeated in SAT scores, where Asian Americans have outpaced those of white students. They perform better on the writing section and significantly better on math. For all three sections combined, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2012 report, Asian American students scored an average of 1640; white students averaged 1579.
According to Samson, the results of his study may indicate that faith in meritocracy, supposedly widespread among white Americans, in fact masks something much more cynically self-serving and tribalistic. Indeed, the term “merit” itself is stripped of any supposed objectivity, he notes, and is instead revealed as a moving target that those on the inside place before the marginalized.
A century ago, Ivy League administrators became concerned when Jewish enrollment at Columbia University approached 40 percent. “Believing that Jewish students were primarily more successful in academic endeavors than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts,” he notes, “administrators redefined merit to de-emphasize academic proficiency as the sole economic criteria, and highlighted nonacademic factors such as athletic prowess, leadership and personal character…”
That led him to wonder whether “the large presence of Asian Americans at the University of California, and not just perceived competition, could prompt white Californians to more forcefully reconsider the importance of academic merit in a repeat of history.” His findings, Samson writes, “weakens the argument that white commitment to meritocracy is purely based on principle.” Instead the results suggest that such as commitment is fickle and variable, depending on certain circumstances.
Circumstances, namely, like whether or not white applicants are being deemed most meritorious.