Merit vs. Background … Fight!

The other day, a friend of mine was talking about her (white) uncle and why he hates affirmative action. She summarized his take as, “He was applying for a job, and it was down to two candidates. He had more merit, but the other guy got it because of his background.” Who hasn’t heard a variation on this story a million times? But something about the way she told it* made bells go off in my head.

In describing her uncle, she perfectly encapsulated the common thread of many anti-affirmative-action arguments: that considering someone’s “merit” and considering someone’s “background” are two different things. This can be framed overtly or covertly, but “merit” is one category, and “background” is another.

This categorization is, I think, precisely the problem with debates about affirmative action. It’s cognitively easy to assume that two categories are non-overlapping, especially when there are only two of them. For example, I read a great study about how parents stereotype their kids the most when there are exactly two of them, because they sort them into opposing categories on all kinds of factors**. Setting up “merit” and “background” as the two categories therefore implies – incorrectly! – that having more of one means having less of the other.

Treating “merit” and “background” as separate categories is problematic for other reasons. First, it implies that those are two different reasons why people get hired. We know that if there are two reasons given for an event, people tend to give less credence to either of them***. Affirmative action (as opposed to “pure merit,” whatever the hell that means) as a possible explanation for hiring a woman or a person of color makes people less able to see the actual merits of that individual, even when affirmative action was not used in the case at hand. Second, it makes the very specific cultural positions of whiteness and maleness invisible. Whiteness and maleness are certainly not coded as “backgrounds” because they are so very pervasive as the norm in our society – which puts them, thanks to our tendency to reason exclusively about binary categories, in the “merit” column.

The real answer, of course, is that “merit” and “background” are not separate categories. Instead, we need to reconsider what we mean by merit. Merit needs to be considered in the context of background, because if we judge people entirely by outcomes we are not getting the real picture of what they are capable of. Consider two people who want to be your investment manager. Candidate A says, “I have $100 in my last client’s investment account,” while Candidate B says, “I have $105.” Would you stop there and hire Candidate B? Or would you ask, “Well, how much did your client give you?” What if Candidate A answered, “I started with $50” and Candidate B answered, “I started with $100”? Who would you hire now?

Our ideas about “merit” are largely outcome-based. This makes about as much sense as only paying attention to totals in the example above. Merit can and must include the individual’s background and experiences, because you need to know not only what someone can do, but also just what kind of investment of resources it took for them to do it. Me, I’d rather hire someone who can do more with less, instead of investing a larger proportion of my own resources to get a number that looks larger on paper.

Unfortunately I think it may be too late to save the term “affirmative action,” because it’s become so tied to the merit-background binary. I do believe, though, that we need to change our ideas about what merit means, who has it, and where it comes from, because merit and background are not different things. And that, my friends, is what affirmative action is really about.


* And, just to clarify, she was reporting on her uncle’s opinions – not her own.

** I can’t find the link and still post this before Shabbat, but if you’re curious, ping me.

*** As per the previous footnote, I’m pingable.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *