by Leotis Martin
Acquaintance: “So what are you doing in Florence?”
Me: “Spring vacation…I’m studying in Paris.”
A: “Oh, so where are you from in the States?”
Me: “Well, I’m originally from South America, but I grew up in the Bronx…”
A: “Oh, how is that?”
Me: “It’s the Bronx, so all the rumors you’ve heard are definitely true.”
A: “Hah. Well you made it to [insert private institution of higher learning here], right? That means you had to be, like, extra super smart huh?”
I lost count of how many times someone has mentioned some version of that warmly intended but wholly ignorant comment to me. I understand the sincerity of good intentions, but that kind of flattery only reinforces the idea that some individuals have a uniquely misguided understanding of cultures and society. I am lead to believe that this person thinks 1) it must be because of some genetic deviation that I am so smart (partly true) and 2) that smarts automatically signify success. The problem is not the humor in #1, but the dangerous assumption in #2. This assumption proposes that a meritocracy exists where a winning combination of intelligence and an articulated career path eventually level economic and social differences. It incorrectly presumes that a dramatic escape from the implicit temptations and pitfalls of inner-city life defines it as well.
The belief in a meritocracy eclipses the reality that achieving economic and social stability in the United States is still a very difficult task for minority populations, despite the chorus of hope echoing from the recent election. Yes, having a sense of self-awareness, intelligence and purpose helps; but, unfortunately, it cannot overcome the stark inequities of education, health, and wealth minority populations still face. As an immigrant, I have heard the argument that the first-generation (the children born to immigrant parents) tend to fare better than existing minority populations in the U.S. In other words, “native” minorities who do not share the immigrant experience and the associated “protective effects” of cultural insulation do not realize equal levels of achievement. Why is that?
Affirmative action policy was a great progressive leap forward following the Civil Rights movement as a means to account for policies that were inherently and intentionally racist. It was a first step in an experiment to justify that a meritocracy was possible within a historically inequitable system. However, in the past decade, there have been debates over which minority groups deserved affirmative action policies. The reality was that there was no clarification on who should be designated as a recipient. This meant that a policy meant to help historically disenfranchised populations (read: black and Native American) was not being duly preferential at all. Consequently, these policies would be more helpful to newly designated minorities, particularly those with professional experience, thereby eliminating opportunities for U.S. citizens with less economic mobility.
The same irony remains today where those like “the Acquaintance” may notice more first-generation students in institutions of higher learning than native born minorities. But, again, is success a question of the winning combination previously mentioned or more reposed to the vagaries of chance? Whichever explanation you choose, it still suggests something structurally unsound about our institutions. The mythical meritocracy fails to explain why some recent immigrant populations tend to fare better than existing minority populations in the wealthiest country on the planet.
In the U.S., the cultural meme which generally champions those who have made it to the top seem to ignore the fact that there are also scores of individuals for whom survival is prioritized over success. Eventually, for immigrants, the advantage of protective effects wears off and the barriers to mobility created by structural racism do inevitably level the field–with a dangerous downward slope. This slope presents obstacles that affect an individual regardless of origin. Observing exceptional cases of success provides meaty movie material, but they do, unfortunately, distract us from the unsavory issues in our system of institutions.
 The observation that certain immigrant populations who retain their mother culture, and reject certain cultural aspects of the host country, tend to fare better socially and economically compared to existing minority populations in the host country (in this instance, the U.S.), see:
Burrington, Lori. “Evaluating the Potential Protective Effects of Immigrant Status and Neighborhood Immigrant Concentration on Adolescent Arrests” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Atlanta Marriott Marquis, Atlanta, Georgia, Nov 14, 2007 <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p201548_index.html>
 “The answers to the why, when, and how questions could not be found in the public record of elected officials in shaping civil rights policy. Instead, the answers had to be teased out of reports and archival document…The story these documents reveal about the way official minorities were designated is one shaped not only by the country’s history of past discrimination but also by the vagaries of chance, historical accident, logical contradiction, and inadvertence. Above all, none of the career civil servants and appointed officials who shaped the outcomes had any awareness that they were sorting out the winners and losers in a process that, by the end of the 20th century, would grant preference in jobs, government contracts, and university admissions to government-designated official minorities, including approximately 26 million immigrants from Latin America and Asia who came to the United States after 1965.”
Graham, Hugh Davis. Collision course: the strange convergence of affirmative action policy and immigration policy in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. p. 134
 According to the 2000 census, the following statistics were observed for 18-19 year olds who self-identified by race or origin who were enrolled in college: 36% for Blacks, 28% for Hispanics and 40% for Children of Foreign Born Parents. (I am assuming here that those who identified as either Black or Hispanic did not also identify as a child of a foreign born parent.) http://www.census.gov/population/socdemo/school/ppl-148/tab01.txt
 See Footnote 2
 On the topic of affirmative action policy, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson argues that “First-generation Mexican-American and black immigrants should be excluded…[but]their children and later generations should be eligible…in light of the persistence of racial discrimination in America.”
Graham, Collision. p. 133