There’s a saying that racism isn’t the shark. It’s the water.
Nearly three and a half centuries of racial apartheid have so tainted not just our systems and societal infrastructure but also our collective psyches that many “good white people” (along with some Black and Brown as well) are so used to seeing the highest levels of achievement and excellence represented by whiteness (white men in particular) that when it comes packaged differently, they reflexively categorize it differently. An older white man being appointed CEO or winning a Senate seat or being confirmed to the Supreme Court feels “normal” and therefore “merit-based,” but a Black woman achieving the same feels special, different, exotic, charitable, undoubtedly part of some “diversity initiative” or desire to check a box. We can’t see the merit because it’s packaged so differently than what we’re used to.
We know what “merit” looks like, and it doesn’t look like that.
During Bill Maher’s recent exchange with recently re-elected Colorado governor Jared Polis on his eponymous HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, he railed against Democrats for focusing so much on “checking the boxes” by prioritizing diversity in candidate selection, insisting that the modern Democratic party would never support a presidential ticket with two straight white men. In response to Polis’ insistence that “It’s not a bad thing when the Democratic party wants to look like America,” Maher responded, “It is a good thing, but the question though is, is it the priority?…Is it more of a priority than things like merit that should matter more?”
Pulling the predictable, overplayed Barack Obama card, Polis, who identifies as white, male and gay, seems to cast identity-based discrimination as anachronistic insisting, “These barriers that are in people’s minds still, like somehow I can’t do this, I think these are falling away,” Polis said. “And there really is no barrier for anybody of any background no matter their race, who they are, who they love, their faith or if they have no faith at all; there’s really no impediment there to serve in any office in this country.” One can only wonder if Polis has concluded that it’s simply an unexplainable tragic coincidence that a Black woman has never been elected governor of any state in this country—ever. Arguably, Stacey Abrams, on the heels of her second unsuccessful gubernatorial bid, might beg to differ with his warm and fuzzy assessment. (Neither the Colorado Governor’s office nor Real Time with Bill Maher responded to a request for comment for this article.)
Later in the program, Maher extends sympathies to California governor Gavin Newsom for, in Maher’s assessment, being disadvantaged by his identity as a “straight white guy” in contrast with other potential Democratic presidential hopefuls. Insisting that because the Democratic party is defined by “identity politics,” it would never nominate two straight white men together on the presidential ticket, he rattles off part of The New York Times’ Frank Bruni’s list of likely Democratic contenders for the 2024 presidential nomination including Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Gretchen Whitmer, Amy Klobuchar, Ro Khanna, Jared Polis and Elizabeth Warren while making invisible check mark motions suggesting their tokenism.
Indeed, Maher seems oblivious to the idea that casting these supremely capable, talented, proven leaders as simply a token check mark could be highly insulting. Why can’t they be highly qualified candidates who happen to fall outside our ingrained straight-white-male default paradigm? Why aren’t they viewed as fully capable, qualified leaders some of whom likely would have already been nominated if we actually had a purely merit-based system? While Maher adopts the “Gavin Newsom as reverse discrimination victim” narrative, perhaps a different, less biased lens is required. Perhaps the Democratic party has become more sensitized to long-standing identity-based advantages and has consciously chosen to focus precisely on merit which would in turn surface a more diverse slate of contenders. Instead, Maher seems to cast them as charity cases.
“We’ve had 46 presidents, 45 of whom were white men,” says Dr. Angie Beeman, author of Liberal White Supremacy: How Progressives Silence Racial and Class Oppression. “To argue that Gavin Newsom is somehow disadvantaged because he matches the demographic of those already in power is inconsistent with the data and reality. When people of color, women, LGBTQ+, or other historically underrepresented people make the slightest bit of inroads to a predominantly white, straight, male space, they are intensely scrutinized, and their success is reduced to identity politics. Their advancement is seen as a threat to dominant white control rather than as potential for a more inclusive democracy. I think responses like Maher’s are coming from this reactionary stance because he may feel threatened as a straight white man who is accustomed to being surrounded by others like him.”
Recently ousted MSNBC host Tiffany Cross brilliantly eviscerates this dangerous, persistent identity politics myth in her response to former The View co-host Meghan McCain who espoused similarly white-centered, biased views. (A representative for The View did not respond to a request for comment for this article).
Blatantly racist, this “unqualified diversity hire” mentality is rampant throughout workplaces, and this type of irresponsible commentary simply helps normalize it. It’s scary to consider that no one on the panel spoke up to check Maher on his white-centered, biased assumptions. No one interjected, “I’m confused. Why is there an assumption that candidates who aren’t straight white men have less merit?”
Unfortunately, while Maher insists on frequently addressing topics of race and racism on his show, it’s exceedingly rare to find experts in that space appearing as guests. Sherrilyn Ifill, Bryan Stevenson, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Dr. Ibram Kendi, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, Michelle Alexander…so many to choose from, yet true racial studies scholars are virtually always absent from these important, nuanced discussions. Instead, Khanna and Maher casually closed the discussion with banter about how much progress our country has made on race relations.
Tragically, Maher’s biased mindset is common among self-identified white progressive “allies” who fail to understand that the fight for equality is firmly grounded in the desire to move toward a merit-based system, not away from it.
Unless you ascribe to an overtly racist, eugenic world view that white men are inherently smarter, more talented and capable, one would assume that intellect, merit and capacity are evenly distributed across genders and racial groups. As such, if we had a purely merit-based system, then achievement would also be equally distributed, reflecting the broad diversity of our society. Since that’s not the case—white men are consistently, conspicuously overrepresented in achievement, wealth and power—it shows that we’ve never had a strictly merit based system.
The truth is that most white and Black people fundamentally view the “merit” barometer very differently, and therein lies the crux of the misunderstanding. Many whites tend to reflexively view “diversity initiatives” or non-white achievement as movement away from merit to preference. In contrast, Black and Brown professionals typically view these equity focused initiatives and policies as movement from systemic advantage to true merit.
Diversity and merit are not mutually exclusive—full stop.
Does anyone actually think that Kamala Harris achieved her firsts (first Black/South Asian woman attorney general in California and later Vice President of the United States) because of charitable, undeserved, racial advantage or is it more likely that throughout previous decades many Black and Brown women have been more than qualified but their merit couldn’t overcome a biased environment that reliably advantaged white men?
Certainly, society has evolved and progressed. Today, virtually everyone agrees that racism is bad and equality should be the goal, but vast, glaring racial disparities clearly persist (and show no signs of automatic reversal). There were only two Black Supreme Court justices in the first 232 years of the court’s history, Fortune 500 Black CEOs have rarely surpassed 1%, median Black household wealth is a paltry 10% that of whites,’ and on average, Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women. The truth is that white men continue to be conspicuously overrepresented in positions of wealth, power and influence across virtually every industry because they’ve enjoyed an identity-based advantage that is baked into our societal DNA. But discussing that wouldn’t feel as good, so what do they do? They just continue to stroke the shark and ignore the water.
This content was originally published here.