Let us consider what this statement implies, shall we? To dissect this, let us start with the definition of “merit.” According to Dictionary.com, merit is a claim to respect and praise. I recognize that Dictionary.com might not best represent the popularly implied meaning behind the arbitrary organization of sounds and symbols that make up the English language, but it does have some credibility.
The physical difference between a white American and a black American is, as the differing words suggest, color. The two colors have merit in different senses. A white American has a natural advantage when playing hide and seek naked in the snow (let’s overlook what sky clad snow treading implies about intelligence).
A black American, by contrast, is naturally advantaged when hiding nude after sunset, assuming that their eyes are closed of course. If a black American were applying to Columbia University’s College of Nighttime Camouflage, the merit of their race would be unquestionable.
However, even a casual look at most institutions of higher education, especially those oriented around the “liberal arts,” would undoubtedly expose the fact that the art of camouflage is a relatively low priority for colleges and universities today, with the distinct exception of service academies and Columbia’s aforementioned college.
However, Spike Lee, with 52 years of experience, did not talk about hiding when he supported the above statement. Instead, Mr. Lee discussed four hundred years of slavery and over a century more of racism, prejudice and sociopolitical injustice. He spoke of the cruelty that the ancestors of black Americans faced and suggested that we have not finished dealing with slavery yet, that there is still some compensation necessary for past atrocities. I do not know how to compensate for those atrocities in any way other than providing equality for all, by honoring their pain and eventual death by deliberately and diligently devoting ourselves to freedom and equality.
Let us consider, then, what is unequal about the college process that would, if it does, link the atrocities and inequalities of the past to a “merit” of race now, specifically the black Americans that are Mr. Lee’s subject matter. American public schools are funded largely by the residential taxes of their districts. This means that a student in a rich neighborhood has more money devoted to his education than one from a poor neighborhood. We are considering only public schools because they represent the vast majority of students and college applicants.
Logically, we can infer that the greater opportunities that extra resources provide richer students give them an academic advantage. Statistics strongly support this inference. If you look at average SAT scores based on the income of the families, without exception, an increase in money results in higher scores by five to 20 points per 10,000 dollars annually.
The discrepancy between districts can be extreme. On average, a student in Utah is worth one third the average student in New Jersey. The difference between a student in the Lawrence public school system and the Andover public school system is similarly staggering.
So what is the link? Racism in the past and present has unquestionably prevented the average black American family from economically prospering the same way that the average white American family thrives. Statistics again show the average incomes to be staggeringly different, with white American families earning an average of $70,000 per year as opposed to the $40,000 earned annually by a black family.
Therefore, it follows that the average black American student receives an education with fewer opportunities than their white American counterpart and is therefore disadvantaged on tests like the SATs, ACTs and in other areas colleges are interested in.
This is simply factual information. What does it mean? It means that the areas that colleges are interested in, where there is a measurable discrepancy between white and black Americans, on average, disadvantage black Americans.
Now, let us look at time for a moment. The differences between black and white Americans’ opportunities now are correlated to differences in the past. White Americans had a head start, so to speak. In the past, race was the determining factor between who was advantaged and who was not.
Now, socioeconomic class is the determining factor, which is clearly, but irrelevantly, correlated with race. I say “irrelevantly” because the problem we should focus on is class. As I said before, to best honor the suffering and sacrifice of both slaves and civil rights advocates is to work towards equality, to realize that the differences between us should no longer be because of race. By altering admissions based on race and not class, we simply highlight an issue we are simultaneously saying is not grounds for different treatment, either good or bad.
Therefore, I strongly believe that race is not a merit in college admission. Just as there are very poor white Americans who are as capable as wealthier white students but who, by nature of their inadvertent circumstances, are disadvantaged away from the scores and achievements colleges look for, so too are there wealthy black American students who are given an unfair advantage by quotas and similar means of compensation.
What I suggest is a system that compensates for socioeconomic circumstances, a system that looks comparably at students’ opportunities versus their achievements and makes decisions accordingly. This system would obviously help a lot of black Americans, as a lot of black Americans live under the umbrella of those who are disadvantaged, but it would not be directly because of their race, which is not a merit.
To address the important issue of diversity, racial and ethnic diversity is important, but no more or less important than diversity in interests, socioeconomic background, religious views and any other category that divides people. This diversity should come to schools naturally, without giving any specific advantage to one group or another, because in theory, any group of equally capable students will contain all varieties of people with different perspectives.
What should be intentional is giving all students with equal capabilities equal opportunities to display their strengths. This, undisputedly, is an issue of class and resources. Race has no more merit than gender or height; actions, effort and personality have merit. Give us the chance to prove it. Give us ALL the chance to prove it.
Adam Tohn is a four-year Seniorfrom Millersville, MD.