CSU and the Myth of the Meritocracy (You Don’t Belong Here)

That Colorado State University blow-up with the two Native American students being harassed while on a college tour has me thinking. Specifically, on why I get annoyed at folks who push back on diversity, inclusion, and representation in the workplace by stating that “it should be about supporting the best people, period.” In other words, organizational decisions around who to hire, retain, and promote should be meritocratic.

meritocracy (noun): an elite group of people whose progress is based on ability and talent rather than on class privilege or wealth.

The logic is that performance is what should count. If we focus on recruiting the best people, for example, it shouldn’t matter if they’re black/brown/purple/etc.

First things first: for those that may not know, the blow-up I’m referring to is about two Native American students who were attempting to take a school tour at Colorado State University (CSU). They arrived late and joined the tour, which was already in progress. A white parent, also attending the tour, felt uncomfortable by their presence. She proceeded to interrogate them, then called 911.

“There are two young men that joined our tour, that weren’t part of our tour. They are definitely not part of the tour. ~ from the audio of the call to CSU police by the parent  

The police came, interrogated the two students on-site, then allowed them to return to the tour. By this point their mother, by phone, instructed them to come home.

For a fuller understanding of the CSU incident and why it’s problematic (beyond my HR specific focus), I would encourage you to read this op-ed in Teen Vogue by Native education scholars Amanda Tachine (Navajo Nation) and Adrienne Keene (Cherokee Nation).

The CSU incident, in my opinion, shows how the meritocratic ideal falls way short in the real world. These two young men were following the rules, so to speak. They expressed an interest in attending this school, and going on the tour was part of the process. Yes, the two young men were late. But unless CSU’s rules state that being late for a tour is an automatic disqualification, then it shouldn’t matter. Again, they seemed to be clear on CSU’s explicit rules for potential admission, and were following them. But the two young men didn’t follow the implicit rules.

A bit of context is needed here, so I’m going to tell a quick story about my mother in-law. When she was a kid, she used to cut through, and get chased out of, a housing complex here in New york City called Stuyvesant Town. The reason for that was Black people were legally not able to live in the complex. So clearly she didn’t belong.

“Negroes and Whites don’t mix. Perhaps they will in a hundred years, but not now.” ~ Frederick H. Ecker, President of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (which built Stuyvesant Town), May 1943

Her daughter (my partner), however, could walk through Stuyvesant Town when she was a young girl. It was because the bylaws outlawing “negroes” from living in the complex was struck down by that time. While people may not have liked it, my partner could now be in that space.

In the CSU incident, what’s at play is that the implicit rules around who belongs in certain spaces are in flux once again. CSU says it’s a welcoming place. It’s also legally obligated to not discriminate against people who want to be there. However, that a white parent on tour can, by expressing her “fear” to police of these two minority men, have them detained and left with little choice but to leave, reinforces the idea that they may not belong. As a result of this parent’s behavior, CSU has potentially lost two students.

Also, with this incident receiving so much media attention, what sort of chilling effect could this have on other students (minority or otherwise) who may not feel that CSU will respect them for who they are, and that they may not be safe in that space? CSU has not in any way indicated that the white family is not welcome, so marginalized students may have to contend with more of this behavior if that woman’s child attends.

Incidences like these remind me of a number of HR horror stories, such as hiring managers dismissing candidates because they can’t pronounce their ethnic sounding name. Or because they live in “undesirable” neighborhoods. Or that their LinkedIn profile picture shows someone to be older than they are. In all these examples, people weren’t being judged on merit, but by other non-work related factors. Also, they weren’t even given a chance to demonstrate their skills.

The implicit rules (really, just plain ol’ racism, bias, and discrimination) held greater weight than the explicit ones. So how can an organization claim to be honest on being a meritocracy (focused solely on “performance” over diversity/inclusion), when factors such as racism, bias, or discrimination can (and do) impact who even gets to be included for consideration around merit?

I don’t have any hard-and-fast solutions to dealing with racism, bias, or discrimination in the workplace. I will say that, if you believe that institutions should hold meritocracy as their sole organizing principle, then you’re part of the problem.