Some Black artists have chosen to boycott the Oscars after the major award categories featured all-White nomination slates. It is not as though there was a deficit of great Black performances this year, and their exclusion from the awards stage is part of a broader decades-long pattern of discrimination. So the decision to boycott the event is entirely appropriate. But talk of a boycott is producing predictable hand-wringing and questions about the supposed threat to the integrity of the Oscars and of film artistry in general.
"What are the Oscars to do?
Set an artificial quota for films featuring people of color?
Are we to have affirmative action in movie awards now!!??
Implicit in these questions and complaints is the confident but completely unfounded belief that the Oscars reflect meritocratic achievement. The controversy brings into sharp focus the extent to which White success is coded in our society as earned and natural, even if there is little evidence to support these claims. It is hard to imagine that the people loudly insisting race has nothing
to do with this would be so sanguine in a world where Oscar Voters were
94% Black. But here in our real world where they are 94% White, it is obviously inconsequential. By the way, there's nothing sinister or mysterious about this kind of discrimination. The notion that your identity will affect how you experience a film and identify with its characters is too obvious to be seriously denied. But this is, in effect, exactly what defenders of the Oscars do deny.
It is telling that so many people see a challenge to White dominance and
Black exclusion as an attack on a meritocracy. Instead of appealing for
inclusion of people of color using the language of individual
achievement and hard-earned merit, we must expose how the fiction of
meritocracy hides the reality of unearned White advantage.
Let's zoom out from movies and think about what we know of the broader structures of opportunity in American society: we know that Whites have race-based unearned advantages in getting jobs and promotions and benefit from network effects. We know that people of color, particularly African Americans, are widely discriminated against in the job market. We also know that discrimination and inequality in education, health, policing, and housing leave many young people of color less prepared for the job market in the first place. We know that these dynamics of unearned advantage and discrimination overwhelm the effects of affirmative action policies. Thus we know that, in the aggregate, successful White individuals are more likely to owe their success to their racial identities than are successful Black individuals. We know this. There's nothing mysterious about it. If we allow ourselves to linger on this point, we will see how dramatically the meritocratic screen distorts our perceptions.
Think about it: though successful Whites are the most likely to experience unearned advantaged based on race, their achievements are most associated with merit, hard work, and earned success. In contrast, achievements of people of color are associated with affirmative action and political correctness. The point is not that people of color never benefit from affirmative action; it is that whites continue to gain far more from our racialized society even as their success is coded as raceless. The idea of meritocracy is deployed in defense of the very group that least exemplifies it.
To be clear, I think it is uncharitable to view any person's success in cynical terms of earned or unearned. On an individual level, few people find great success without putting in a lot of hard work. But the suspicion that attaches itself to Black success ("he's only there because of affirmative action"), would, if applied with any consistency, render White success even more suspicious.