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American Meritocracy? The Systematic Disenfranchisement of Immigrants and Minorities

Updated on December 18, 2013

Exploitation Through Social Constructs

The neo-conservative sentiment that by, "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps," every American can expect a fair deal and a chance to climb the socio-economic ladder has been a fiction that has increasingly saturated common sentiment since the Nixon administration.

This fiction is ossified into place by the Plutocratic elite actively legislating a system that sees wealth and privilege passed easily from one generation to the next just as it simultaneously confers a dearth of resources and opportunities as the only true inheritance that the lower economic strata can bequeath to their children. The active means by which this is achieved are threefold;

By creating a system of division predicated upon an ever-nebulous and constantly changing notion of the, "White Class."

By radically denying that such a caste system exists and by keeping the fiction of The American Dream alive.

By actively legislating to keep those considered, "White," perpetually benefited by this inherited status and all others perpetually marginalized by their status as, "non-White."

The Elastic Construct of Race

The true pragmatic genius of the concept of, "Whiteness," is it's ineffable and constantly contorting definition. The status has been systematically denied to each new incoming immigrant, "threat," to the American way throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Irish immigrants from the 1850s well into the 1940s, especially Irish Catholics, swelled into the U.S. metropolises as unskilled, unhealthy famers escaping sectarian violence and famine. They had no status, were considered a collectively degenerate influence on the, "American Way," and only slowly attained the status of , "White," after an assimilation process that involved complicity in the marginalization of African-Americans.

While racial identity was static concerning, African and Asian-Americans, the process of, "becoming White," was a possibility for each successive wave of Eastern and Southern European immigrant group. The prospect of immigrants being fit to partake in, "American Whiteness and White wages," was a topic of active Political debate between the 1890's and the 1930s in particular.

The epithet guineas originally referred to African Americans coming from the North-West African coast. In the 1890's it came to refer to Southern Italian and Sicilian contract laborers who had recently immigrated to the U.S. It has been used in various times and places within the U.S. to refer to Jews and Greeks, likewise. The slur hunky presumably originally referring to Hungarians and other Slavic immigrants come to denote in the 1910s any immigrant steel-worker.

Indeed, the immigrant classes consigned to the most menial of work were described by the writer John Dollard in the 1930s as, "temporary negroes." The native born Protestant Plutocracy seemed to be the social and Political arbiters of, "Whiteness." throughout this period. The distorted version of Eugenics resulted in a Euro-ethnic hierarchy that plagued social sentiment and political action throughout the 20th century.

The 1930 census contained an addendum to count all Mexican and most other Latin ethnicities as not white unless they were, "Definitely White, " though the addendum contained no instruction on how a definite determination ought to be made.

Madison Grant, outlined in his book, "Passing of The Great Race," three distinct European racial groups. At the top were, "Nordics," of North Western Europe, followed by southern "Alpine," and, "Mediterranean," ethnicities and at the bottom, Jews. World War II birthed a less sectarian census in 1940 that no longer distinguished between native whites born to native parents and native whites born to immigrants. The ability of the various Ethnic-Euro minorities to assimilate and settle into suburbs led to the myth of a Democratic transcendence of racism is the U.S. This myth was enhanced by the social progress resulting from the G.I. Bill of Rights passed in 1944 that allowed for preferential hiring of veterans of all Ethnicities, low interest home loans, and in the greatest expansion in Collegiate education in American history.

The only group of GI's who experienced an incommensurate level of frustration in their climb up the social ladder following the benefits conferred by this bill were Black GI's against whom discrimination in employment, education, and home loans continued.

This idea of becoming white only as one group adequately assimilates and a new group of more recent immigrants presents itself to take their place as the “non-whites,” shows just how historically muddled and inconsistent the concept of race truly is. It also demonstrates the willingness of the recently, "assimilated," to claim their whiteness on the backs of the newly
oppressed and classically oppressed.

Privilege and It's Denial

The inability to identity, "White Privilege," by those who have attained the status of, "White," is indeed a problematic truth that seems intrinsic to the social phenomena. Peggy McIntosh wrote an article in 1986 which included a survey of whites that conceded that racism put Minorities at a disadvantage while simultaneously being less able to conceive of how this system conferred privilege upon them.

Indeed, one of the privileges is being able to exercise the prerogative of denying privilege as soon as a conversation regarding it makes us uncomfortable. Along with this the privilege of rationalizing one's privilege away or minimizing one's personal role in the system that engenders it is a privilege to remain comfortably ignorant of it's reality.

As our educational structures still do a poor job of making privilege clear, I think as White people we are systematically trained to be oblivious to the unearned and unmerited resources that we unknowingly carry with us and unconsciously utilize when the need arises.

Some examples might be appropriate of things that we as white people simply take for granted;

1. I can see people of my color widely represented in mass media.

2. I am taught that people of my color made my heritage and this nation what it is.

3. I can present in front of a group of business associates without feeling as if I am being seen as the measure of my ethnicity or as a credit to people with my skin color if I perform well.

4. I can openly criticize the government without feeling in open conflict with it because of my skin color.

5. If I need assistance from the legal or medical fields, I can feel relatively assured that my skin color will not be of consequence in these pursuits.

6. I am never asked to represent the collective opinions of everyone with my color of skin.

7. If I need to move I can be sure to locate housing in my price range in an area where I would want to live where I can expect my neighbors to be amicable to me.

8. If I am confronted by the police I can be sure that it is not because of profiling based on skin color.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list. Conceding the truth of privilege is difficult in that it entails the shedding of the myth of the U.S. as a true meritocracy in which all privileges are available to all peoples.

If we White people of privilege are to be brutally honest with ourselves we must recognize that this privilege confers on us the ability to allow social institutions to work for us, to think of ourselves as belonging, and to allow ourselves to be disinterested and detached from significant cultural constructs.

When we listen to someone talk about diversity or read something about cultural plurality we don't feel that we are learning about ourselves but are rather learning how to incorporate the, “other,” into the normative, “us,” that our skin color has immediately allowed us to be encompassed by at parturition. It would seem that even those of us with the best of intentions fall prey to the solipsism of our privilege.

Establishing a Rigged Game

While we as sensitive and compassionate liberal democrats have been aware that government policies foster a vicious cycle of sabotaging the upward struggle of anyone
who is not seen as, "White," particularly between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement,
many of us do not know all the specific and shamefacedly conspicuous legislative measures that so thoroughly besmirch our very recent history.

The FHA's (Federal Housing Administration) disproportionate channeling of loans to prospective White home buyers has resulted in a vastly segregated White suburban subculture while simultaneously leaving ethnically diverse inner city areas to be devastated by "Urban Renewal Programs," that eliminate up to 20% of Black inhabited housing. This has continued through the 1970s well into this Millennium.

This exodus to the suburbs, allowed by the unwillingness of the government to adopt and enforce fair loan and housing policies, allowed the Euro-ethnicities to become White and intermarry without concern serving to homogenize White culture.

In present day Houston, 75% of waste incinerators and 100% of waste dump sites are located in Black neighborhoods. A study conducted in 1992 found that the EPA imposed sanctions that were 500% higher in cases involving violations in White neighborhoods than in Black or ethnic neighborhoods.

Medicare disproportionately provides preventative health care and costly operations to Whites in comparison to ethnic minorities. Whites are also more likely to apply for food stamps and while migrant agriculture workers provide the vast majority of sustenance enjoyed by whites they are much more prone to malnutrition and early mortality.

A study conducted in 1990 determined that minorities comprise only 15% of habitual drug users yet were four to seven times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses depending on the area of the country. Blacks account for 12% of the population and yet comprised 40% of drug arrests in 1988 and 42% in 1990 while receiving significantly longer sentences than their White counterparts. The absolute lack of economic opportunities in poor inner city neighborhoods and the resulting economic dearth leaves the prospect of the drug trade as one of the best viable alternative in providing for loved ones.

A study of Boston bankers revealed that 2.9 times more mortgage loans were made to low income White applicants than to low income Black applicants. They also showed a much greater propensity for overlooking credit problems amongst White applicants. This has resulted in low income Blacks turning to exploitative lenders for low end variable interest rate loans that inevitably end in foreclosure leaving the bank free to open another equally nefarious loan on the same property.

Neoconservative ideology, which celebrates completely unregulated free markets and selfishness as the quintessential American ambitions, combined with the Christian Right wing, have learned how to deftly manufacture and conflate panics concerning family values, welfare, terrorism, and crime as a very effective means of hiding the inadequacies and ineffectiveness of their own policies. The social and economic devastation brought about by neo-conservatism is laid at the feet of imagined inept and incompetent social groups. This state of perpetual anxiety fuels a constituency that is increasingly pliable and easily led to believe that their party is engaged in a moral crusade which entitles them to an acrimonious disapprobation.

The ignorance regarding a long history of slavery, marginalization, and disenfranchisement of blacks and other minorities leaves sufficient room to construct a social fiction in which the dysfunction of the United States is created by minorities. The disinvestment in factories, schools, and U.S. cities resulting in a general deindustrialization begun in the 1970s precluded the possibility of minority socio-economic mobility while promoting a fiction of White success predicated on their appreciation of family values, a stolid work ethic, and sound judgment. This has become the majority sentiment amongst whites both of wealth and of poverty in the U.S.

The denial of racism and the long term effects of cyclical disenfranchisement has become the new racism. The mere mention of racial issues is now taken with offense by the neoconservative right despite the thousands of cases of recorded discrimination of a chronic and methodical nature every year perpetrated by bankers, employers, and politicians.

As a nation we invest in, "whiteness," through unfettered supply-side economics, absolutist free-market policies, the discounting of the long-lasting impact of slavery and segregation, the outsourcing of both unskilled and skilled trade labor, liberal social welfare programs, urban renewal, and the taboo on speaking of racism as if it wasn't a long forgotten thing of the past.


Readings for Diversity and Social Justice. Eds. Maurianne Adams, Warren J. Blemenfeld, Rosie Castaneda, Heather W. Hackman, Madeline L, peters, Ximena Zuniga. New York & London: Routledge, 2000. Print.

Barrett, James E. & Roediger, David. How White People Became White. White Privilege. Ed. 4. Rosenberg, Paula S. New York: Worth Publishers, 2012. 39-44. Print.

Dalton, Harlon. “Failing to See.” White Privilege. Ed. 4. Rosenberg, Paula S. New York: Worth Publishers, 2012. 15-23. Print.

Jensen, Robert. White privilege/White Supremacy. White Privilege. Ed. 4. Rosenberg, Paula S. New York: Worth Publishers, 2012. 127-132. Print.

Kivel, Paul. How White People Can Serve as Allies to People of Color in the Struggle to End Racism. White Privilege. Ed. 4. Rosenberg, Paula S. New York: Worth Publishers, 2012. 157-165. Print.


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      Howard Schneider 

      5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub, Adam. I agree that our current meritocracy, though a good concept, often hurts minorities. Its corollary, unfettered capitalism, allows people to put up roadblocks to advance their business interests and indulge their prejudices. Government regulations, laws, and programs are created to mitigate these evils.


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