A textbook example of racial privilege

Those of you who have been reading for a while know that I am a big believer in the power of diversity. I’m not only referring to racial diversity, but I am of the belief that our racial identities inform our day-to-day experiences and the lens of how we see the world. A variety of experiences means a diversity of perspectives, which means in turn that any problem can be approached with a variety of solutions. It just makes sense – a group is smarter when it can rely on a variety of skills, even if the problem doesn’t have an explicitly racial component to it.

As a result, I am a supporter of affirmative action (AA) programs as a method of creating a more adaptable, agile, and smarter workforce. Whether that workforce is in academia or industry, we all benefit from being surrounded by people who are capable, but who also have life experience and perspectives that give us a better chance for a multi-faceted problem-solving approach. At the same time, I recognize (as do most supporters of AA programs) that it’s a non-perfect approach to the serious problem of racially supremacist systems. We have a history that has, at times explicitly, given the bulk of the benefit to some groups at the direct expense of another, resulting in a lopsided distribution of wealth, education, political power, and popular perception. There’s no way to re-balance the scales without someone feeling like they’ve had something taken from them.

Of course opponents of AA say that rebalancing the scales thusly is manifestly unfair. What we should do, they say, is just start treating everyone according to merit, thus ensuring that those who are “most qualified” will succeed. If we take race out of the equation entirely, we won’t be giving unfair advantages to one group, but nor will we be taking away opportunity from those who happen to be in a group that, once upon a time, had members that were wicked. By forcing race into the equation, affirmative action is being just as racist as those wicked ancestors were, just in the opposite direction!

Henry Yu explains the problem with that line of reasoning with a parable:

Imagine that I am teaching a class. There is a textbook for the class, and according to my syllabus, at the end of each week I will give an examination that tests the students on that week’s lectures and textbook readings. However, at the beginning of the first day of class, I decide to give only half of the students the textbook. I do this by arranging the class list alphabetically and reading out family names, starting with A and giving out textbooks until they run out, somewhere around those with last names beginning with L or M.

After several weeks of class, it becomes clear that those students who were given textbooks do much better on the weekly exams than those who were not given textbooks. Students whose names begin with P or T begin to complain, and eventually to protest their unfair treatment. They claim that there is an “alphabetism” in the class that gives some people better treatment just because of the letters of their name. An “anti-alphabetist” movement begins, complete with marches and letters to the administration and by the middle of the semester, the protests are so powerful that I am forced to change the system.


I announce that from now on, our class is an “alphabet-blind” meritocracy, and those who complain need to shut up and start working hard instead of blaming their failures on “alphabetism.” I point out several “model” students who did not receive textbooks at the beginning of class, but despite the stigma of having a name beginning with T or Z, were still able to get high marks in the class.

Indeed, the student with the highest grade in the class had a name beginning with W! Even without a textbook, she listened attentively to lectures and took detailed notes. Because I had felt pity for the students without textbooks, I had put one copy on reserve at the library, and she had woken up early every morning before the library opened so she could get to that copy first. Her example should shame those lazy students who spent their semester protesting and complaining instead of working hard. She made the most of her limited resources.


The new system is fair in concept. Being “alphabet-blind” is a worthy ideal to replace the unfairness of “alphabetism.” But something is not quite right. Indeed, a new system that is fair in ideal has actually reinforced the unfairness of the past. By ranking the students by grades achieved during a period of inequality, and continuing to reward those who accomplished the most under that system, the “alphabet-blind” system actually extends and exacerbates the inequities of the past. Worse yet, being alphabet-blind hides the unfairness of the past. By claiming that the present and future is now fair and meritocratic, it erases the effects of the first half of the semester.

The parable is worth reading in its entirety, as it does an excellent job of fleshing out the full scope of the issue, and why, well-intentioned though it may be, mandating meritocracy after generations of racial supremacy simply does not solve the problem. He also provides a thorough description of the “model minority” myth, expressed through the lens of history – the TL/DR version is that inequality and deprivation created the conditions where groups had to become models just to succeed, and it’s the height of hypocrisy to complain that schools are “too Asian” now that those chickens are coming home to roost.

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  1. smrnda says

    You already pointed out that ‘merit’ isn’t some cut and dried issue where all candidates will compare nicely and neatly and ‘who has more merit’ can be measured as unambiguously as height.

    I liked the parables example of the one student who made it out to the library early in the morning to read the one textbook on reserve. Yeah, all the students without books had *completely* the same access to education as the students with books. Continue this over several generations and you’ll see the world just as it is now – people from privileged groups tend to do better.

    Perhaps I’ve very aware of privilege because I was very privileged, and I think that, I’d either have to have been an incredible screw-up to not end up financially secure in the present, whereas someone with less privileges could have made the most of their limited resources and still hit plenty of brick walls.

    What I wanted to ask though is that there are several Black conservatives who argue that Asians were discriminated against and ended up doing pretty well whereas Black people in the US haven’t, and many (such as Thomas Sowell) use this to argue that it’s individual choices and not racism. I mean, I think his mistake is assuming that all minority groups face the same type and same level of prejudice. (His other mistake is that he’s acting like ‘hey, things might be better for group X in like, 150 years, so let’s just let them pull themselves by their bootstraps now. Their great great great grandchildren will be so much prouder their ancestors did it without government assistance!”)

  2. says

    IMO some of the backlash against affirmative action, in its role of dismantling entrenched privilege, is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    Of course attempts to undo the systematic discrimination of the past will have flaws, errors, screw-ups, and the like. The people making these attempts are human beings, after all.

    But I suspect that on balance it’s still better than doing nothing.

  3. eric says

    What a great parable, but I will have to read Yus’ article about the model thing before really accepting it. The counter-argument to the ‘model minority’ argument that immediately springs to mind (albeit without reading his article; just your description) is the toughness and competitiveness of the Japanese school system. ‘Model behavior’ of 1st generation Japanese immigrants may be more simply explained as bringing current Japanese academic cultural habits with them, not as some response to US bigotry.

  4. says

    So the article provides a lot of the historical context for why the “Asian” group has the characteristics it does now. I just ordered the larger book of essays so that I can look at that more closely, because it’s not something I know a lot about. What I can speculate, just based on how they and other groups have fared over the years, is that there was a specific selective pressure that made banding together a) possible, and b) necessary. When you’re not allowed to integrate, you tend to have to duplicate all the functions that mainstream society would otherwise provide. You also have to work harder to get ahead, and that adversity builds a work ethic on a foundation of justified paranoia. We also see this with American Jews, who were excluded from so many sectors of public life, needing to rise through other, less “respectable” (by the standards of the time) means, which included certain banking sectors, artisanal pursuits, maybe Hollywood?

    There are any number of historical reasons why this wouldn’t be true for black people in America. First, we can accept the conservative argument, which is that there is some cultural or political reason for the difference – blacks are not collectivist in the way that, say, Chinese or Jewish people are. They (we) are also dependent on government because we were raised on the government teat – welfare, affirmative action, public education – in a way that Chinese and Jewish groups were not, and as a result they flourish while we flounder. I’m not a fan of this argument, but it has a long pedigree in black thought as well, so take that for what it’s worth.

    Second, we can look at other groups like Polish or Irish or Italian families who were also discriminated against, but who were eventually adopted as “white” and thereby gained access to those systems from which they were long ostracized. I don’t know enough about the particular histories of these groups to comment in an informed way, but I do know that they shed their “visible minority” status much quicker than non-white minority groups, including the Chinese, who in turn were slower to achieve status than the Jews, so there may be a colourist element to that process. It would follow that blacks would be last, after South Asians and Latinos. It’s not exactly a linear relationship, but blacks WILL be the last people to become “white”.

    Third, it should not be overlooked that the white establishment purposefully and consciously disrupted attempts by the black community to organize and exercise collective strength in the way we are being exhorted to do so now. Any black leader who rose too high was often assassinated, either in terms of hir character or quite literally. Black attempts to build wealth and influence were consistently destroyed out of fear that black people would not only join white society, but supplant their former slave-masters. There was not that same threat from Chinese immigrants, who had a very different relationship with the white establishment.

    Fourth, it’s worthwhile noting that black Americans did not have the same connection to their history and culture that Asian-Americans (or Asian Canadians) do. Our history was denied to us for generations. The existence of it is still denied to this day. As a result, we couldn’t look to our family histories for encouragement, for role models, for any kind of psychic support. We had to build it ourselves. Rebuilding a culture is not easy, and when that culture is rooted in poverty (by the simple fact that most black folks were poor from Emancipation forward), divorcing oneself from poverty is a fractious matter.

    So, as usual, the conservative argument ignores huge rafts of relevant fact in favour of making quickly-digested arguments that flatter the establishment’s view.

  5. Brownian says

    Fourth, it’s worthwhile noting that black Americans did not have the same connection to their history and culture that Asian-Americans (or Asian Canadians) do. Our history was denied to us for generations. The existence of it is still denied to this day. As a result, we couldn’t look to our family histories for encouragement, for role models, for any kind of psychic support. We had to build it ourselves. Rebuilding a culture is not easy, and when that culture is rooted in poverty (by the simple fact that most black folks were poor from Emancipation forward), divorcing oneself from poverty is a fractious matter.

    Indeed. Memory is an imprecise thing (mine maybe moreso than others), but while I remember learning about the contributions by Asian immigrants to western Canada, I don’t recall ever being taught about early black settlers. I was in my twenties at least before I learned of Albertan towns like Amber Valley, Campsie, Junkins, Keystone, and Maidstone, all of which were founded or substantially settled by black settlers.

  6. says

    The other thing to note here is that I have such a sketchy understanding of the history of the Chinese settlers and labourers that any or all of my points might be totally ahistorical. I’m hoping there will be some insights in the book essays.

  7. leni says

    …blacks are not collectivist in the way that, say, Chinese or Jewish people are.

    This reminds me of something I learned about in a documentary called the Pruitt-Igoe Myth.

    Briefly, Pruitt-Igoe was, I believe, the first large-scale public housing project in America. It was built in St. Louis in the mid-50’s, but soon after fell into serious decline (largely because of lack of funding). As conditions worsened, the families who could leave moved on, leaving only the most desperately poor to basically fend for themselves. It was torn down sometime in the 70s (I think). The documentary was told from the perspective of people who had lived there, both in the good times and the bad. It’s a great deal more complicated, fascinating, heartbreaking and enraging than I could possibly describe, so I encourage you all to watch it if you haven’t.

    Anyway, one of the things people said about it was that families were not allowed to move in if there was an able-bodied husband or father in the picture. It was presumed, apparently, that he could get a job and if he didn’t then neither he nor his family deserved assistance. (Never mind that black men were routinely denied access to the best jobs even during the boom that shortly preceded this project.) So of course people lied. (And when you see pictures of the overpriced slums they could have lived in otherwise, you’ll understand why.) Fathers worked or looked for work during the day, snuck in at night, and hid in closets when social workers came. Mothers told their children to “tell any white people that asked” that they didn’t remember the last time they saw their fathers.

    Basically, they tore apart families so they could pat themselves on the backs for being so charitable, all while (conveniently) blaming black men for abandoning their families.

    Maybe Pruitt-Igoe and projects like it are a big part of the reason well-meaning liberal social programs are targeted as failures that ultimately harm poor people. Or even worse presented as reasons why poor people aren’t worth helping.

    But this documentary really exposes the flaws of those easy answers, while still acknowledging the kernel of truth in them. The problem wasn’t just the program, it’s the way it was run and then promptly abandoned when the money dried up. It was the blatant racism of local developers, the lack of long term planning, and the attitude that if poor people need your help they should not be permitted to have access to “luxuries” like transportation, television sets, paper or husbands. It’s a lot of things, but when you look a little closer you see that the people who had the least amount of control over the situation were the people living through it.

    And I understood, by the end of the documentary, why so many of the people left at the end simply just started destroying it. I probably would have too.

    Anyway, that was really long. Sorry! It’s just such a perfect example of why thinking that poor people (especially black ones) somehow magically live in a vacuum that only they are responsible for is so very, very wrong.

  8. says

    For the record, I don’t buy the “black people aren’t as collectivist” argument at all. In every interaction I’ve had with people from Africa or the Caribbean (including members of my own family), I’ve found the exact opposite. That’s just part of the argument, and I was doing my best to represent it as accurately as I could.

  9. mildlymagnificent says

    What I wanted to ask though is that there are several Black conservatives who argue that Asians were discriminated against and ended up doing pretty well whereas Black people in the US haven’t, and many (such as Thomas Sowell) use this to argue that it’s individual choices and not racism.

    If you read Sowell’s “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” essay you get a very interesting take on how the dominant white culture of the slave owning south was toxic to economic and educational success, or progress even, of both the whites and the blacks who, inevitably, absorbed their example. He’s blisteringly scathing about the white community historically being both unwilling and unable to make a go of obvious economic opportunities of the time – the dairy industry being just one example. And how these attitudes affected black people in that region, whereas there was an entirely different cultural environment for the Caribbean.

    His economic and political analyses grate badly with me, but his history/amateur sociology stuff can be really interesting (if you make occasional allowances). Watching him sketch out the cultural linkage from ignorant, violent 16th century Scottish highlanders through the white American South to present day (at the time of writing) black gangs is thought provoking – if not always convincing. (It provokes a few ‘what if’ speculations for those so inclined. How different would the USA as a whole have been if the south had been more like the Caribbean or if other British groups had dominated the South? Mostly fruitless, but it got me tracking down some info about the different places that various Brit and European groups first went to, where they came from and whether that affected their historical course.)

    The education essay in that book of essays does get more into the pull yourself up by your own bootstraps theme. Though he wouldn’t go with the library at 6am solution as policy, I suspect. His biggest beef is with educators and parents setting low standards because of perceived disadvantage. He emphasises educators setting appropriately high standards for everyone. So that’s good.

    If you’re interested in his views on Asians, there are a couple of essays on trading and middle man traditions and behaviours turning some groups into perennial outsiders. Uganda exiling all the Indian ‘profiteers’ being the outstanding example of how this can turn really nasty.

    Basically, so long as you keep yourself away from his current economics and politics and attitudes, he can be reasonably good value.

  10. says

    I must confess that I have a complex and difficult relationship with black conservatives. There are problems within black communities, and there are solutions to be found there as well. It is dangerous to rely on government for assistance, especially when the government time and again reveals itself to be a racist institution. The remedy, at least in terms of a political remedy, is to occupy positions of power within government, but that is only one of several necessary paths toward success, and many of those paths require self-reliance.

  11. says

    Not to mention the culture formed by generations of poverty leaves people distrustful of attempts at “help” from outside, and often determined to attack and undermine any “sellout” behavior. Really poor people find pride wherever they can find it, even in adopting behaviors that make it impossible for them to improve their situation in life… as a defensive mechanism against a world that is probably going to make them fail anyway. Better to fail on your own terms and at least be a good fit in your family and neighborhood, then to fail on someone else’s terms and alienate everyone you know in the process.

  12. says

    Mostly fruitless, but it got me tracking down some info about the different places that various Brit and European groups first went to, where they came from and whether that affected their historical course.)

    Colin Woodard’s American Nations is a very good examination of this.

  13. maudell says

    The worst part about Macleans article is their response to the criticism. Some kind of
    “We must have been misunderstood! We love Asians! We even play basketball with one! No, the problem is the racists who are so obsessed with racist methods (i.e. AA) that they don’t see that us saying that Asians access more top schools and don’t get drunk enough is unfair to white people *is not about race*! Come on guys! And the “too Asian” title… It was just us repeating what other people said. Reporting, you see. Objectivity. Now let’s just assign journalists who understand nothing about racial issues to explain what the problem is. Because merit. And they’re so white, they don’t feel like they belong to a race like non-whites do. I wonder why. Some Asian people said to our reporter they would not go to an all-white party. Discrimination! Of course, all white people would be super comfortable going to an Asian only party. Whites are so colourblind. Further, white men are the most oppressed group. They can’t even party and go to the best schools at the same time. *sniffle*”

    I’m paraphrasing.

    To top it off, the amount of comments revolving around “Asians should become Canadians if they want to come to our schools. They must take the native culture, English and French.”

    Not a mention of the actual Canadian First Nations.

    It makes it harder and harder to feel superior to the Americans [sarcasm]

  14. julian says

    Reading the comment by Dorothy and another on that article I can’t help but wish for a “suggest as idiotic” button. Some people really do need to shut up for half a minute in their lives and think. Dorothy is a classic example of someone unwilling to do that.

  15. leni says

    Oh I did’t think you did, so apologies if that wasn’t clear in my response.

    (Course I don’t think anyone who read your post would make that mistake, but maybe I’m an optimist.)

  16. eric says

    smrnda (asking a question, not necessarily agreeing with the following):

    there are several Black conservatives who argue that Asians were discriminated against and ended up doing pretty well whereas Black people in the US haven’t, and many (such as Thomas Sowell) use this to argue that it’s individual choices and not racism.

    What a terrible argument. Alice got mugged. Bob got mugged, but fought off his attacker. So the problem isn’t mugging, the problem is Alice’s personal choice not to learn self-defense. Response: the problem is mugging.

  17. says

    start treating everyone according to merit, thus ensuring that those who are “most qualified” will succeed

    Isn’t that implicitly unfair? Let’s suppose I’m born with a lot of the raw material to make a really great musician. Isn’t it more unfair if I get fast-tracked into a good music school because of my natural abilities? Yes, I can see that they wouldn’t want to take people who are born with distinct lack of musical abilitities* and try to turn them into musicians.

    Rousseau makes an attempt to tackle this problem in his discourse on inequality, by breaking up inequalities into social inequalities and natural inequalities, essentially setting the stage for saying that a certain amount of natural inequality is expected but that society should try to offer fair opportunity where possible (not to make up for natural inquality, but simply because that’s the only moral way for a society to act)

    (* such as: me)

  18. says

    The crux of that argument is what the PURPOSE of the music school is. If its goal is to produce highly-skilled musicians, then they should take the more talented ones. It’s a question of who can do the “job” the best, right?

  19. freemage says

    Items 3 and 4 in your list are both huge. 4 also ties into a fifth–there is a vast, vast difference between voluntary immigration and involuntary immigration. I know I’ve seen at least a few studies showing a difference in performance between modern immigrants from Africa (who tend to follow the usual pattern in America–first generation takes on whatever work they can find; brings across other family members as they are able; instills an extreme work-ethic in their children, with a focus on education; second generation excels academically and professionally). If this continues, we would expect to see 3rd and 4th-generation modern immigrants from Africa following the same model overall–becoming ‘average Americans’ in terms of performance.

    OTOH, slave-descended African-Americans (including those who immigrate from Haiti and Jamaica, which were of course slave colonies) never had that ‘grounding’ element, where the first arrivals settle in and integrate as part of their immigration. Instead, they built a parallel society–one which, as you note, was occasionally hampered or even burnt down if it seemed to be becoming too prosperous.

    So, yeah, another aspect that a lot of conservative analysts like to ignore.

  20. says

    I think so. Though maybe there’s not so much glory in taking a “natural” musician and polishing their skills as there would be in teaching a klunker to be tolerable. The problem with arguments from merit is that merit often conceals privilege or natural inequality.

  21. frog says

    I think your fourth point is probably the factor that drives the other three.

    For most immigrants to even get to North America, they need the support of family or social group. When my grandparents came through Ellis Island, they needed the equivalent of about $300 dollars in today’s money, and the address of where they were staying. They couldn’t come in if they didn’t know someone who would vouch for them, didn’t have a roof to sleep under, and couldn’t at least feed themselves for a while.

    Modern-day immigrants, with the exception of people slipping over the border from Mexico or on a raft from Cuba, at least have the wherewithal to pay for airfare. Maybe they earned it themselves, maybe their family or community pooled money to help them. Maybe they have the support of a humanitarian organization. But really dirt-dirt-poor people with no support or education can’t even get here to begin with.

  22. says

    As an alumnus of a well-respected university, I have on occasion served as an interviewer of prospective students. There is really no better way to destroy the myth of merit-as-a-single-dimension. Of the dozens of applicants I interviewed, there was maybe one who was clearly less qualified. The rest? Everyone had things to recommend them. I wished all of them could be admitted. But there’s only room for about 15%.

    It would be very easy to admit only white people, or only legacies, and still say “look, every one of these people was totally deserving of admission”. But I for one am not interested in going to either of those schools. (Wouldn’t have been even when I was that age.) So the question is not “who are the most qualified 2500 applicants?” It’s “how can we provide the best learning environment for everyone?” And the answer to that clearly involves diversity. Some people will be admitted “because” they are black, or from far away, or otherwise different from average. (Scare quotes around “because” because the diversity is part of a complete person.) But the only other options are deliberately choosing the already-privileged, or a random lottery.

    And sure, hiring for a job comes closer to there being such a thing as “merit”, in the sense that Seattle is closer to Tierra del Fuego than Vancouver is. I’ve always (always) been surprised in one way or another after hiring someone. If you think you can easily rank applicants by merit and then pick, without reference to color, race, or whatever, the top one from the list, you’re a fool (and not the funny kind).

    The whole emphasis on meritocracy is a smokescreen. Anyone who has ever had to choose employees, team members, etc, knows there is not a one-dimensional ranking that means anything.

  23. lirael_abhorsen says

    When I was an undergrad, I worked part-time for Admissions at my prestigious university, and for a couple of years after I graduated I did a lot of informal/unofficial counseling of applicants. One very common viewpoint that I saw (and one that I more or less shared in high school) was that admission to a prestigious college was something that was awarded to you by the college for having performed well in high school. I call this the cookie philosophy of college admissions – you did a good job in high school like you were supposed to, and you’re justly proud of it, so now you want and expect a cookie for it, a tangible reward for your accomplishment.

    I tried to get students to view admission less as a cookie and more as a calculation of benefits. A prestigious school wants students that 1) will benefit from what the school has to offer, and 2) will benefit the school (within the school’s ethical framework, whatever it is – some are opposed to certain privilege-reinforcing invocations of 2, like legacy admissions). Generally you need high grades and SAT scores for prestigious schools to be confident that 1 and 2 apply, but the people with the absolute best grades and SAT scores may not be the ones that maximize 1 and 2 for any given school.

  24. smrnda says

    Yeah, it places the blame on people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps without asking who it is who’s dumped them in the pit to begin with. Reminds me of a Chris Rock line, that a Black man has to fly to what a white man can walk to.

  25. Martha says

    Thanks for this post and the link, Ian. I’m using this parable at the next available opportunity. A family reunion, no doubt :/

  26. Nic says

    You may also want to check out The Ethnic Myth by Stephen Steinberg which discusses model minority myths and how (as mentioned in the Yu piece) selective immigration has really impacted the outcomes of different groups. It does have a very USA-centric focus.

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