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NEW YORK -- Critics of affirmative action generally argue that the country would be better off with a meritocracy, typically defined as an admissions system where high school grades and standardized test scores are the key factors, applied in the same way to applicants of all races and ethnicities.

But what if they think they favor meritocracy but at some level actually have a flexible definition, depending on which groups would be helped by certain policies? Frank L. Samson, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Miami, thinks his new research findings suggest that the definition of meritocracy used by white people is far more fluid than many would admit, and that this fluidity results in white people favoring certain policies (and groups) over others.

Specifically, he found, in a survey of white California adults, they generally favor admissions policies that place a high priority on high school grade-point averages and standardized test scores. But when these white people are focused on the success of Asian-American students, their views change.

The white adults in the survey were also divided into two groups. Half were simply asked to assign the importance they thought various criteria should have in the admissions system of the University of California. The other half received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state.

When informed of that fact, the white adults favor a reduced role for grade and test scores in admissions -- apparently based on high achievement levels by Asian-American applicants. (Nationally, Asian average total scores on the three parts of the SAT best white average scores by 1,641 to 1,578 this year.)

When asked about leadership as an admissions criterion, white ranking of the measure went up in importance when respondents were informed of the Asian success in University of California admissions.

"Sociologists have found that whites refer to 'qualifications' and a meritocratic distribution of opportunities and rewards, and the purported failure of blacks to live up to this meritocratic standard, to bolster the belief that racial inequality in the United States has some legitimacy," Samson writes in the paper. "However, the results here suggest that the importance of meritocratic criteria for whites varies depending upon certain circumstances. To wit, white Californians do not hold a principled commitment to a fixed standard of merit."

Samson raises the idea that white perception of "group threat" from Asians influences ideas about admissions criteria -- suggesting that they are something other than pure in their embrace of meritocratic approaches.

He adds: "While the principle of fairness may be a driving concern in people’s attitudes towards policies such as affirmative action, social welfare, and fair housing, the malleability of white respondents’ attitudes towards the importance of university admissions criteria in response to racial considerations indicates that public opinion about the importance of such criteria is anything but fair, at least if the definition of fairness entails a procedural fairness by which all groups should be subject to the same procedural process, i.e., same weighting of admissions criteria, when determining whether an individual should be admitted to a prestigious public university system, an opportunity that will significantly shape that person’s life outcomes."

And Samson noted in his presentation here that these concerns are not just theoretical. In 2009, the University of California Board of Regents changed the admissions criteria for the system, generally eliminating the requirement of SAT subject tests. Advocates for Asian Americans noted at the time that this shift was taking away a criterion on which Asian-American applicants tended to do better, on average, than other groups.

Further, Samson said that key Supreme Court decisions have been framed as being about meritocracy when -- if different groups had been involved -- they might have been framed differently or not even been brought. For example, one of the most important recent rulings on affirmative action in employment came in 2009, when the Supreme Court ruled that officials in New Haven were wrong to throw out a promotion exam for firefighters after realizing that white candidates had done well and black candidates did not, on average, do as well. Those who sued, and the Supreme Court majority, said that the decision was about applying meritocratic standards.

But would the white firefighters have even sued, Samson said, "if Jews or Asians had taken the test and gotten higher scores?" In that case, he said, would everyone have endorsed the idea that the test was all that mattered?

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