Educational meritocracy is a farce

The debate on affirmative action often overlooks the significance of educational inequalities

The concept of meritocracy often undergirds conversations about diversity, race-based affirmative action, and Title IX discussions. However, the more the concept is mined, the more its supposed existence is undermined. Nothing is a true meritocracy, and the word “meritocracy” was itself was coined in derision because belief in such a system is blinding. Recently, in part because of court cases surrounding the legality and propriety of affirmative action such as SFFA v. Harvard and Fisher v. Texas, renewed debates have rung through the halls and social media spaces of prestigious schools such as ours, often framed as balancing true meritocracy versus retributive justice. It is important to remember, however, that beyond whatever restorative power for past injustices affirmative action may provide, we are still actively discriminating against racial minorities, particularly black people, in our educational system. Segregation is worse than it was 40 years ago. How have we lost sight of what we purportedly hold as one of the greatest achievements of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to the point that we reversed course and are resegregating?

Housing segregation/redlining

We commonly teach segregation as it was applied in public spaces, i.e. segregating restaurants, theaters, buses, but segregating neighborhoods and limiting black people’s access to housing may be the most important incarnation of “separate but equal.” Public schools often draw from the surrounding neighborhoods, so by separating black people by living area, black people were separated in education (as well as in healthcare outcomes, nutritional options, and state spending and funds available to schools), so segregation proved harder to remedy than the simple removal of statutes allowing segregation’s existence, and outcomes in these areas are intensely connected to racism and the limitations placed by racism on socioeconomic mobility and ability as opposed to any sense of diligence or personal achievement. Redlining, the practice of mapping and ranking neighborhoods based on an “ethnic hierarchy” associated with risk in lending for home ownership, was instituted by the Federal Housing Administration and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to explicitly codify racist policy that forced black and latinx people to live in areas zoned “red” (hence the name, redlining). This policy prevented black and brown home buyers from acquiring loans, as they were deemed high risk solely on the basis of their skin color, thus depriving many of them of the fundamental cornerstone of wealth acquisition available for other populations in the U.S. while institutionalizing housing segregation and discrimination in a manner that persists in present day lending practices. Neither wealth acquisition nor educational opportunity as determined by zip code were determined by any sort of meritocracy insomuch as they were deeply tied to racism as felt through segregation.

The Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and numerous associations like the National Neighborhood Coalition aimed to fight this and other racist practices such as outright discrimination from landlords who would evict black tenants and real estate agents who wouldn’t show homes in white neighborhoods to black people. Unfortunately, as evidenced by report after report, while the Fair Housing Act and the lawsuits that followed made an impact in the immediately succeeding years, the weakening of the Civil Rights Act by conservative Supreme Courts and the continued presence of racism and outright or hidden discrimination in housing — from lending discrimination and denials of mortgages to black people to refusal to rent to non-white people (which is how Donald Trump entered the political sphere for the very first time) — has led to resegregation, which surfaces in the exact same areas that de jure segregation was enforced, and further undermines the idea that we have come any closer to a world in which efforts alone produce rewards.

“Neighborhood schools”

With neighborhood segregation came school segregation because public schools historically drew from the surrounding communities. Seemingly made illegal by verdicts delivered in Sweatt v. Painter and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and fought with bussing programs and school exchanges, schools are largely still segregated, and in many cases they have been resegregating; Nikole Hannah-Jones has documented school resegregation in Tuscaloosa, among many other cities where, upon relaxation of federal oversight, states and cities have allowed their education systems to fall back into the grasps of “separate but equal.” This is also true in Boston, where 60 percent of schools are 90 percent minority enrollment or more and where majority-white schools are located exactly where they were prior to desegregation measures.

Private/parochial schools, vouchers

Concurrent with the community school movement in locationally-segregated communities has come the racially-motivated school choice movement/voucher movement, the segregators’ method of choice in racially diverse communities. Many a battle has been fought over the constitutionality of political moves like school vouchers, which allow people to spend tax dollars allocated for public education on private schools or charter schools. While potentially helpful within a system of integration that allows black parents and students to choose the schools they are educated in, school choice historically has worked in the opposite way by allowing white parents to send their children outside of the public system for education. Irrespective of the legality, there is a moral wrong done in moving desperately-needed tax dollars away from public schools to satisfy white parents’ cloaked desires to educate their children separately, and further deepens educational inequalities along the axis of race.

Tracking within schools

Even in racially-integrated schools, segregation rears its ugly head in the form of educational tracking, such as Advanced Placement, honors, and other advanced programs, which functionally keeps white and black students separate even within the same school systems. This was evident in my own high school, where I often found myself to be the only black person in an AP class in a school that was 52% black.

Affirmative action seems to be the battleground upon which racial and educational equality is now being fought, so it is imperative to remember that there’s a system that disadvantages minorities, particularly black people, which has not been dismantled. It seems the only marketable solution, if a half-measure at best, is affirmative action (and this is without a discussion of the ways public education systems themselves have perpetuated racism against black people: see the school-to-prison pipeline and manifestations of “new racism”). Segregation is alive and well, and before we discuss removing positive racial considerations from the college admissions process, we should focus on how we can level the educational playing field (reparations may be a solution, as would a reintroduction and enforcement of bussing programs, and a fairer restructuring of funding and resource allocation in schools) so we don’t have to have that discussion in the first place.

Alula Hunsen is a member of the MIT Class of 2021.