The demerits of race

Gwen Ngwenya speaks on the "benefits of a meritocratic society"

Speech to the Economic Association of Namibia, in Windhoek on 7th of November 2019

Policy without race: The benefits of a meritocratic society

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, and to the sponsors of this event, in particular the Economic Association of Namibia.

Race and its place in policy is a sensitive and deeply contested topic, and the idea of meritocracy not to be overshadowed also has its committed proponents and detractors. To place them side by side as this talk does in its title, ‘Policy without race: The benefits of a meritocratic society’ is a work of mischief. I did not choose the title but I thought it best to rise up to it; there is something to be said about race, about merit, and about race and merit together. Let’s step boldly then into that conversation.

Right upfront it must be said that I am not an expert on the conversation in Namibia per se with regards to racial redress in the economy or affirmative action measures in the workplace. But I suspect that is not why I am here. South Africa and Namibia share an intertwined past, and our attempt to untangle that past has converged us more or less onto the same questions regarding the prosperity of our countries:

1. How to create a competitive society and economy, that can compete on the international arena

2. How to identify and eliminate discrimination

3. How to make the workplace more inclusive, and

4. How to make capital more inclusive

Immediately we can see why the idea of meritocracy features so prominently. If we want to compete globally we need to nurture talent.

We live in a world where almost everything is being measured- and once measured the relative position of things is known. There are lists, domestic and global, for the best places to live, the cheapest places to live, the best education outcomes, the rule of law, the freest, the cleanest, and the happiest places on earth. Most countries want to be near or at the top of those lists, and most people want to live in the highest-ranking countries.

Despite this relentless clamour to the top merit is a contested idea. Having said so, it is important to bear in mind that contested does not mean useless. Proponents of meritocracy must take seriously the charges levelled against it. If we do not, we risk it becoming so distorted, divisive, and acrimonious a concept that it is snuffed out completely.

The greatest challenge for merit is that it does not appear genuine.

There is a rising tendency to talk of meritocracy as a myth. Silicon Valley software engineer Tracey Chou said, “Meritocracy is this myth that, if you have merit, you will rise up, and people who are in positions of power and success got there because they have the most merit, and they most deserve it.” And because that has not been her reality, she can at least anecdotally confirm that meritocracy is a myth.

There is a conceptual crease there, that needs to be ironed out. If a workplace or industry does not reward those with the best ability and results, it is not because meritocracy is a myth rather that workplace is not in fact a meritocracy. The noble gentleman who does not inherit his father’s title could not declare aristocracy to be a myth just because society no longer organises itself by noble birth right.

This is important because meritocracy is not a farce either, but we can accept that the people and institutions who advocate it sometimes are.

The idea of merit not too long ago was a galvanising idea for those from working class backgrounds and low-income households. There was an urgent and authentic concern that one’s life chances not be so fatally determined by birth or inheritance. Small family businesses could more or less continue to be nepotistic, but war and the rise of large national and multinational enterprises meant that the need to recruit the best and brightest was inevitably recognised.

In South Africa the chamber of mines opposed the first statutory colour bar established in the Transvaal in 1893; arguing that a test for miners should be based on competence not colour. This argument was motivated more by the need for cheap labour, than a concern for meritocracy but it did by implication make the point that black labourers could the jobs as well as white labourers, and if that was the case it made no sense to profit minded bosses to employ white labourers who demanded a higher salary.

But how do we determine who the best and brightest are? Tests, experience, and performance on the job are some of the ways. In theory tests in school and universities, psychometric testing in the workplace and job performance reviews are neutral and fair. They are not.

Too many who profess to care about meritocracy, exhibit no concern at all for the process of becoming meritorious. And this has understandably led people to recoil from the idea.

If universities look at test results, extra-curricular activity and letters of recommendation to assess merit then we must be concerned too with the following: that children with ability are not undermined by a poor education system, about those who cannot afford to participate in extra-curricular activity, and it must concern us that there are young people without the social capital to have their character affirmed by a person of good social standing. In other words, we must be conscious of who is afforded the opportunity to display merit in the first place.

Those with resources find it easier to display merit- they hire tutors experienced at preparing for tests, they demonstrate a concern for the community as founders of charities not beneficiaries of them, and their problem is not finding a person to vouch for their work ethic but deciding who among their options would impress a potential employer most.

Many proponents of merit get indignant because they feel that they did not receive handouts, they got to where they are through merit. But those who find it difficult to display their merit can all too easily see how money and connections buy merit even when they no longer buy jobs directly.

Furthermore, proponents of meritocracy brandish the idea with a moral force- that plucks out the deserving and undeserving. We are often so insufferable because we seem ignorant of the role played by chance. And even more ignorant of the scale of man-made obstacles. It is a product of a liberal value system that prizes the idea of individual agency. An idea which I stand behind, but which when adopted uncritically can lead to the belief that everything in your life is of your own doing.

These challenges do not mean we dispense with merit. Just because life is unfair does not mean the pursuit of excellence is unimportant. That pursuit drives competition, and competition drives further excellence- both of which are integral to advancement and innovation. These challenges do mean, however, that merit can remain hidden and that we must be as committed to nurturing and uncovering it as we are to wielding it. Meritocracy will continue to suffer a crisis of legitimacy if we don’t.

What about those without merit? We must consider that not everyone will be able to display or be meritorious in the things which society values, no matter how good we become at nurturing and finding innate ability and no matter how hard they work. Such persons often find themselves in less discriminating, low paid work. The role of chance then in determining each of our own innate abilities and the stroke of luck in finding ourselves in a world which finds those abilities useful should make us more empathetic and less self-righteous towards those for whom no amount of boot strap pulling will be sufficient to lift them up. Being born without discernible talent, or in a world not designed to spot it could happen to anyone.

Exacerbating this dilemma is the possibility of advanced technologies to displace many professional occupations. This has driven a resurgence of interest in universal basic income. Without pronouncing on that particular policy choice these are the kind of debates which proponents of meritocracy must take interest in, because like globalisation merit is not a tide which lifts all, even when it lifts many, and must be accompanied with clarity about how we will bring along those that might otherwise be left behind.

Societies which nurture and attract the best and brightest are heavily geared for success, but they also have the most potential to shield people from the vagaries of chance. They carry the hope not of rewarding the deserving- that is a moral judgment unfit for policymakers to make- but of lifting overall wellbeing.

Meritocracy punches with its weak hand when the force of its argument comes from a moralising notion of just deserts. It punches hardest when it argues for the pursuit of excellence for the benefit of all.

What I am spelling out is what must be the social contract of the modern meritocracy. It is not a world where we are all equal, rather it is a world where envy does not prompt us to pull achievers back and where conceit does not prevent us from pulling people up. It is not a naive egalitarianism nor is it social Darwinism. Populists who shout from their pulpits would have us believe that our only choices are between a tyranny of the lowest common denominator or a dog eat dog world. We can do better.

Once we have arrived here, I hope to have won some sceptics of merit over. That merit can be salvaged if we care not only for its ends, but its means as well the people it will leave behind through no fault of their own.

Some might conclude that very well, we are in agreement about the context and importance of merit not only in the private sector but in the public sector where it is the poor who bear the brunt of incompetence most. But so what of race some say, the use of race in policy does not undermine merit, in fact it compliments it by preventing discrimination and addressing disadvantage. It is to these matters I now wish to turn.

Race and Merit

Typically, when people make the case that race does not discount merit they rely on the scenario where race is used as a tie-breaker between equally suitable candidates. They point to the fact that this is what legislation requires.

The two candidates of equal merit is a scenario particularly beloved by proponents of merit because it always them to square the circle of race selection and merit selection.

This scenario runs into a number of problems, however.

The first problem is that a suitable candidate is not the same as the best candidate. Selection on the basis of merit if it is to mean anything at all, means selection on the basis of the greatest ability or the greatest achievement. A suitable candidate is not the best, but a person who meets the minimum criteria for a job.

Job descriptions are by design intended to yield more than one such candidate. They are akin to casting out a net into a particular pool. The purpose after a shortlist is to identify the best candidate. If not, then one could place all suitable candidates into a lottery.

The second problem with the tie-breaker hypothesis is that this fantastical scenario rarely ever arises. Even if race was used as a tie-breaker between the best candidates instead of between the suitably qualified, it would be rare indeed when the two candidates are identical in every significant way beside for the colour of their skin. But this is the scenario that many would have us believe is the regular practice of affirmative action.

The third problem lies with the legislation itself. The Employment Equity Act in South Africa mentions four criteria to define the parameters of ‘suitably qualified’

- formal qualifications

- prior learning

- relevant experience

- capacity to acquire, within a suitable timeframe, the ability to do the job

The fourth criteria that of a ‘capacity to acquire’ essentially provides for ‘potential’ in assessing suitability. The Affirmative Action Act in Namibia does not to my knowledge provide for the selection of those without prior learning, qualifications and experience as explicitly as does the South African legislation.

Still, not everyone is wedded to the illusion that including race criteria does not discount merit. Some are happy to concede that the effect of race-based affirmative action is to sometimes allow candidates through who would not otherwise be selected if merit were the criteria. They are happy to discount merit in favour of minimum criteria for the sake of other benefits such as diversity and redress. I will come to these considerations shortly.

But before concluding the discussion on merit it is worth mentioning that none of this is to suggest, if it was not already evident, that black people are incapable of merit-based appointments. If we truly believe that talent is not racially determined, then merit should not be considered an inherently racially exclusive notion. It strikes me that a true believer in the random and non-racial distribution of ability would have no fear about the success of black people in a merit-based society.

Race and discrimination

Nonetheless I know that many do worry that placing emphasis on merit will exclude those from disadvantaged racial groups.

There is a fear, supported by anecdotal and empirical evidence, that racial bias exists. Various studies support the hypothesis that most humans display a bias against out-groups—that is people who are different from them. After releasing a study on unconscious bias in 2015 a senior editor from the Pew Research Centre explained that “most of these implicit racial biases are consequence of subtle messages seen in the media, popular culture, that suggest one group is good, and another group is bad-- associating one group with crime, another group with accomplishment.”

Some hope then that putting in place racial requirements will address discrimination and promote diversity.

Far from it. The exploitation of apartheid race categories is likely to frustrate attempts to eliminate discrimination. In the workplace a commonly identified concern is the harmful stereotype that black people are less competent. Compromising the process of merit-based appointments results precisely in the reinforcing of that stereotype not its rebuttal.

It is worth mentioning that around the world those belonging to the LGBTQ as well as immigrant groups suffer prejudicial treatment in society and in the workplace. Yet most countries seem to feel that we can address various types of group discrimination without policies promoting the preferential selection of such groups in hiring practices, university selection, or in broader economic policy.

Just because we do not preferentially hire immigrants, or say lesbians, does not mean xenophobia or homophobia do not matter. Similarly race matters, but we do not need race preference policies to exhibit that.

Discriminatory attitudes are often deeply embedded and are hard to shake. Addressing discriminatory attitudes will not be addressed by preferential selection on the basis of race but by education, continued dialogue on the myth of race, strong leadership, cultural interaction and policies which tackle disadvantage head on.

Socioeconomic differences are responsible for keeping people of different races in different schools, in different neighbourhoods, and exposes them to different sporting and cultural opportunities. There is no preferential selection policy that can close such a gulf.

The good news is the changeable nature of social and economic conditions. We can go a long way towards changing stereotypes by decoupling skin colour from wealth, interests, and beliefs. And the surest way to do that is to close the socioeconomic gap which contributes to vastly different life experiences. Education, economic growth, and cultural diffusion will do more for tackling discrimination than race preference policy.


But am I not forgetting that another justification for race-based policy is that it can help ameliorate precisely this economic gap between advantaged and disadvantaged groups? This is not, however, what happened in South Africa, and I am not optimistic that a more positive outcome lies in store for Namibia.

In the early 1970’s the Malaysian government introduced the New Economic Policy (NEP) giving Malays (‘bumiputera’) preference in almost all spheres of the economy; cheaper housing, access to scholarships, government contracts and shares of listed companies. The vision in 1971 was that in two decades Malays, who then accounted for 53% of the population should control 30% of wealth. At the time Chinese and Indians in Malaysia were wealthier and better educated; the situation of a dispossessed majority was clearly untenable, and the NEP was the answer.

Today Malaysia’s population is two thirds Malay, and the Malay continue to be disproportionately less educated and less wealthy compared to minority populations. In addition, despite bumiputera policy being applied by big business as well as government-linked companies, after four decades bumiputera businesses are largely uncompetitive and cannot survive without government intervention.

Jayant Menon, Lead Economist in the Office of the Chief Economist at the Asia Development Bank, writing for the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs says that the bumiputera policy “instead of engendering a new class of self-reliant and independent Bumiputera entrepreneurs, we see much of the opposite occurring: a rise in crony capitalism, state-dependence, regulatory capture and grand corruption.” The creation of a new elite within the historically disadvantaged racial group is what lies in store for race-based policy.

In South Africa it has become commonplace to get caught up in a debate about whether or not race is a proxy for disadvantage. When politicians reduce important policy matters to a slogan it obscures more than it reveals. So, let’s concede that race is a proxy, or near proxy, for disadvantage. And not for the sake of argument but because it is true. If you are opposed to race in policy, trust me, this is not the hill you want to die on.

We will not be working with slogans today but coming to grips with the more important concern about how to decouple one’s prospects from the circumstances of their birth. The question is whether we can achieve the same or better results by focusing on disadvantage.

In South Africa black people constitute the majority of those disadvantaged, in almost every area of disadvantage. Therefore if policies are put in place to address educational deficiencies in low quintile schools without reference to race, the principle beneficiaries would be black; similarly, a policy to address spatial inequalities would in all probability too have black people as the majority of recipients; and a measure to identify child headed households as the target for a social development scheme would predominantly constitute of black persons.

We may wish to provide financial assistance to entrepreneurs who can prove personal and family capital below a certain threshold. The point is that whether we talk about redress in education, the workplace, or the broader economy it is possible to identify the specific need without recourse to race.

A question which needs answering is why a system based on disadvantage would not primarily those in historically disadvantaged racial groups? The project of redress loses nothing in this approach while gaining progress towards a non-racial society by not leaning on racial classification.

A practical example that demonstrates how preferential selection does not ameliorate the relevant disadvantage is that of a matriculant who scores a low grade in accounting. The matriculant applies for a role open to students who excelled in accounting; she gets selected because she is black and because it is felt that she can be brought up to speed.

If she performed poorly because her school does not adequately prepare its learners, after preferential selection she is still less prepared than those she jumped on the ‘queue’. Furthermore, the next crop of learners at the same school will continue to be ill prepared by their teachers.

Preferential selection based on race masks the fact that it does nothing to correct the actual source of disadvantage- in this case, a bad education.

Equitable representation

There remains one other reason proponents of racial policy may wish to persist with racial targets even when their impact on discrimination and disadvantage is not favourable- equitable representation.

In a well-functioning country the employment, skills, and business ownership profile would broadly reflect the demographics of the country can be taken for granted.

However, the concept of equitable representation in South African and Namibian law has become more prescriptive than that- prescribing desired levels of representation in every workplace, at every occupational category and level.

No theory is ever advanced to explain the assumption or ideal of demographic symmetry in all areas of the economy. The idea is often taken to be self-evident.

There is no doubt that job reservation policies coupled with inferior education made it impossible for certain racial groups to pursue the professions of their choosing. This should not lead us to imagine, however, that when skilled South Africans are in a position to choose that they will evenly disperse themselves across all professions and companies- such a neat pattern will not arise.

The desire to create order is normal and humans have a ‘tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise, what science historian Michael Shermer calls ‘patternicity’. The fascination with the golden ratio for example, thought to be present in the design of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the Parthenon, the human body, and Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings among many others is more urban legend than fact- there is no basis for it as the universal formula behind scientific beauty. There is even less reason to think of demographic ratios as ideal formulas for organising every microcosm of society.

As a political issue diversity is associated almost exclusively with certain kinds of physical diversity- sex, race, and disability. But these are often justified as an interest in the diversity of perspectives. The problem is that there is no guarantee that a white candidate and black candidate have different religious beliefs, political views, geographic origin etc. Besides no institution I am aware of ever measures or takes interest in the degree of perspective diversity making it merely a palatable façade for race aesthetics.

Removal from a job on the basis of race would be regarded as arbitrary and unfair because race is not essential to carrying out a job. But if race should not be relevant in the retrenchment of employees, we cannot very well then argue that it is relevant when selecting for the job.

Finally, on our topic of ‘policy without race: the benefits of a meritocratic society’ I would focus us on how to communicate what we have discussed out there in the real world; the language of giving is more powerful than the language of taking. And where race policy is entrenched, opposing it often sounds like you’re taking something away.

But instead of talking about removing race we can talk about our commitment to tackling disadvantage and to ensuring that connections and inheritance do not matter more than ability. I do believe that many people would prefer that their children receive a good education than for policy to recognise the colour of their skin.

Similarly, more people care about job and entrepreneurial opportunities than about racial recognition. More people will be content with reliable social and public services, than lip service paid to racial solidarity.

If policymakers and governments can bring these things within reach of the majority, they will not stop to ask us whether they are receiving opportunities as a black person or as a person in need.

I do not worry about winning over ordinary working people to the idea that policy should not focus on race- it is the so-called intellectuals and politicians who have made a business of race and profit from it. As for the people and a non-racial society, if we build it they will come.

Thank you.