THE BLOG
11/12/2013 10:09 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

UCLA, Male Black Bruins and the Myth of Individual Merit

As an African American Bruin that attended UCLA during the first year after affirmative action was removed from the admission process, I felt compelled to further the message of the powerful video released by current male African American UCLA student Sy Stokes. In reading comments & replies to his controversial video the recurring theme was a discussion of individual merit, and how a lack of grades is the reason we have seen black males disappear from UCLA. While this merit-based argument plays a role, it is far too simple an explanation. To get a more in depth picture you must dig deeper and look at policy, history and also critically evaluate what makes up the idealistic concept of individual merit.

Less than a full lifetime after Jim Crow has ended, we stand in line to be handed our credit cards, student loans and sub-primes all to build lives on bubbles of credit. The US system has recreated itself in the image of equality, and told a new generation that they could change it all in a lifetime. This was done while at the same time gutting necessary laws and policy that support actual fairness & community change after a longstanding history of subjugation.

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race,...and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair." President Lyndon B. Johnson 1965 speech that created the foundation for affirmative action

Laws that created actions that were both affirmative and necessary, have been muted under a belief that America the land of the free is beyond racial inequity. An inequity not purely based out of skin color, but also rooted in a long history of chattel slavery whereby the subjugated were property. Our courts now moving past an argument that acts need to be taken for correction of longstanding bondage and its aftermath, they instead have moved to other reasoning for affirmative action. From first framing it under discrimination, then moving to diversity, in the end what has been lost is the cost that American Slavery has left on a damaged Black America.

As those consequences bear down on a group merely 45-50 years removed from a status as second class citizens, we are left to look at the long-lasting fallout. While young Sy Stokes statements are clearly focused at UCLA, we must not become enamored with the message to the point that we deny that this has become a national reality. A reality that appears in boardrooms, courthouses, homes, jails, schools and communities across the country. A reality of the cost that denial can leave behind when a society is afraid to look in the mirror and be honest about its dark historical birthmarks.
I created the chart below to give a visual timeline to understand the length of American Slavery against American History
2013-11-12-SlaveryChart.jpg

In a piece I did earlier this year here on Huffington Post "The Era Within Which American Legacy Rises" I stated:

"Over the last thirty years Americans of all walks forgot (or never learned) this country's true history, and the class/racial structure that defined it some 300+ years prior, starting well before the country's official Declaration of Independence. We were made to believe that the rich got positioned so purely as a result of effort & genius, as though America did not recently abolish the legal institution of Jim Crow, and as though Slavery's illegality became enforceable criminally well before the actual date of 1942 when President Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 legislation. Legacy's power in the U.S. is interesting in that it is remembered for when it carries the gifts of wealth & security, but much more often it bears the unforgiving pain of poverty. It becomes hyper-exaggerated in both directions when laws and policy are designed to expand the gaps between the two groups. I believe that when laws that favor groups create unequal opportunity, it becomes a direct clog in the engine of Capitalism. Free enterprise cannot be free when it is burdened with the weight of a yesteryear, which created mass inequity, so directly by law. Slavery and Jim Crow as legal institutions have legacies that not only clogged American Capitalism from being a truly fair opportunity for all, it has burdened Black America particularly with heavy social cost and chained them as a mass group to lives of struggle...

I will state undoubtedly many more Americans are affected than just blacks by poverty, but because of the history of this nation and its unwillingness to confront that history, poverty has laid ravage to Black America at a wholly different rate than any other subgroup. Black America today in mass is impoverished, over 10 million of the 40 million self identified African Americans live below the poverty line making less than $11,000 a year, and another large mass of African Americans are classified as "near poor" by new census calculations. A group that played a major role in building the wealthiest country the world has known as free labor, kneels at this country's back porch in poverty....

Many Americans will say we all were cut out of this wealth, but not as many can say that wealth was built by your own family's free labor investment. This exclusion shut them out of the middle class wealth creation in a rising America, prohibiting them from changing their labor into compounding investment their grandchildren could share for future opportunity. Slavery created a group that was left out of capitalism as a profit participant, but left in as a risk bearer (risking the greatest asset any man had, their own lives doing dangerous work). They did not sit on the sidelines in the marketplace, their labor was allowed to be in play to create other men's familial wealth that remains in the economy today."

America has moved forward, but in the process left the families of those subjugated behind as they struggle for access to the American dream. Those without historical context are using individual merit as a cover for the outcome of the country's long dark history.
2013-11-12-merit.jpg
The problem with the merit based analysis is that merit is never truly individual; it is a composite of ability, effort, opportunity and in addition access that comes from family and community. Thus, when you do expensive computer camp at UCLA while in junior high school, live in a neighborhood of lawyers & doctors, have a grandfather that leaves a large inheritance or just have family that have relationships at the University, your personal achievement comes on the shoulders of those around you that support your success. I believe merit is very real, but the individuality of it not so much so. While we all sit down to take the test as a single person, some sit down with the unknown weight of a history of loss, while others are placed in position to as young Sy Stokes said, hit a "triple while born on third base".

I am a Black Bruin!

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Frederick Douglass