The Myth of the Meritocracy and the resurgence of Social Darwinists

29 May

Meritocracy: A system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.

Today in America we are witnessing a struggle between the left and the right that has as its basic dichotomy the belief that America is, indeed, and in some cases has been, a meritocracy. I presume those espousing the latter, that America has always been a meritocracy,  flunked American History.

On the right the rhetoric is about personal freedoms, independence, hard work being rewarded, that those who are successful are successful due to their own work and skill and intelligence and wise decision making. On the left the rhetoric is about unearned privilege–something the righties would maintain is an oxymoron, oppression, deprivation of opportunity and social justice.

When confronted with statistics about inequities like the ones below the position of those who call themselves conservatives would be a shrug. So what, the people who are not doing well do not deserve to do well, they are flawed, they have something wrong with them. The position of the liberals or progressives would be that people are not that different. If some are doing worse in certain demographic groups there must be some flaw in the system that is putting them at a disadvantage.

“Higher unemployment rates for Blacks and Hispanics occur across all major age and sex groups. In 2009,the rates for Black adult men and women (age 20and older) were 16.3 and 11.5 percent, respectively, compared with 11.6 and 10.6 percent for Hispanic adult men and women, respectively. In comparison, the unemployment rates were 8.8 percent for White adult men and 6.8 percent for White adult women. The unemployment rates for Asian adult men and women were somewhat lower”. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, at 7.5 and 6.2 percent, respectively.

If white folks get more jobs, the conservatives would tell you, it is because white folks work harder, and make better decisions.  Some would admit to believing white folks are also smarter, but that is not a socially acceptable view to express. Liberals would point to the statistic and tell you that white people, who control virtually all systems in America, tend to hire people who look like them, mentor people who look like them and promote people who look like them.

“Many Americans believe we now live in a meritocratic society in which everyone has an equal opportunity for success regardless of race or sex. Half of the white respondents to a 2001 national survey believed that blacks enjoyed comparable or superior access to jobs. Female employment in traditionally male fields is viewed as evidence that sex discrimination is no longer an obstacle to women’s success in the workplace. Facts, however, tell a different story. As of 2005, women were making seventy-seven cents for every dollar made by men. Equally qualified employees with African American–sounding names have a more difficult time obtaining interviews than employees with white-sounding names. Our society remains occupationally segregated. In a word, it is unequal.” HARVARD LAW REVIEW [Vol. 121:2156

So, if my mother named me Shanikwa, which she had every right to do, I may not get an interview for a job because the people doing the hiring do not like black people or black people with names like Shanikwa. Did I have anything to do with the selection of my name? Did I have anything to do with establishing the cultural bias and prejudice that would eliminate me from consideration based on my name, not my qualifications? Is that an example of a meritocracy?

The election of Barak Obama was seized upon by the new Social Darwinists as proof that race and racism are no longer barriers to people of color, that all bias was over except for a few aberrant, toothless white people from Snake’s Navel Arkansas or some similar backwater. But bias and prejudice are with us and very, very common. The wonderful job done by the Social Darwinist of portraying people who speak out against injustice  as whiners, slackers, and people who want “special rights”, has convince people, many whom were already halfway there, that there is nothing standing in the way of success besides one’s own lack of a work ethic and good decision making.

I would like to ask the new SDs, what bad decision or lack of work ethic is shown by a 4 year old in Appalachia whose parents cannot supply him with nutritious food or adequate health care?  When you start behind in a country run by Social Darwinist you are only going to get further behind because they are surely not going to do anything to help you gain ground. I am afraid that at the base of many of the SDs is the feeling that the more people fail the better things will be for them and their advantaged family and friends. Why should they help make their own potential competition stronger?

In their book The Meritocracy Myth Stephen J. McNamee and  Robert K. Miller, Jr.   from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington , say: “According to the ideology of the American Dream, America is the land of limitless opportunity in which individuals can go as far as their own merit takes them. According to this ideology, you get out of the system what you put into it. Getting ahead is ostensibly based on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity. Americans not only tend to think that is how the system should work, but most Americans also think that is how the system does work (Huber and Form 1973, Kluegel and Smith 1986, Ladd 1994).  We challenge this assertion in two ways. First, we suggest that while merit does indeed affect who ends up with what, the impact of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overestimated by the ideology of the American Dream. Second, we identify a variety of non-merit factors that suppress, neutralize, or even negate the effects of merit and create barriers to individual mobility”

So hard work does not necessarily mean success and there are other barriers that mean you might not even get to try hard work. Charlotte Hill in her article ” The Myth of the American Meritocracy” puts it this way: “Of course, the solution usually proposed by the critics of social welfare is simple: the poor just need to work harder. The underlying message is that if you’re rich, you deserve it, and if you’re poor, well, you must have failed somewhere along the line. So you were born into a poor family in a segregated neighborhood, where “white flight” decreased the number of tax dollars in your neighborhood, sinking your schools into further disrepair? Better pick yourself up by your own bootstraps.I am the first to agree that hard work is an essential component of financial success. But as a 2008 Working Poor Families Project report states, “Adults in low-income working families worked on average 2,552 hours per year in 2006, the equivalent of almost one and a quarter full-time workers.” In short, a lack of hard work simply isn’t the issue: unequal opportunity is.”

So, according to Hill sometimes poor people work more hours than rich people. Who knew?

Fred McKissick puts it this way :”Exactly how can we be in post-racial America when nearly 40 percent of black children under the age of 5 live at or below the poverty line?How are we in post-racial America when the level of school segregation for Hispanics is the highest in the forty years and segregation of blacks is back to levels not seen since the late 1960s?How are we in post-racial America when the gaps in wealth, income, education and health care have widened over the last eight years?In 2006, 20.3 percent of blacks were not covered by health insurance, compared to only 10.8 percent of whites. For Hispanics, a whopping 34.1 percent of were not covered.In 2007, the unemployment rate for blacks was twice as high as that for whites.We are all Americans, but the pain of poverty is disproportionately cracking the backs of minorities.There are those who insist that the gap in wealth, income, health care and education is due to an inherent culture of victimization. If people of color only worked harder, they’d be fine, we are told.But it’s a flawed premise. This economy has never provided enough jobs for everyone. The funding of education gives a leg up to those who grow up in wealthy districts. Lack of health insurance is a necessity for those without the means. And institutional racism persists.”

The myth of the meritocracy is particularly strong, not only as it relates to work and its rewards, but to the way one becomes qualified for work–education.

In 2008 according to source: NYTimes http: // economix. , 61.5% of blacks who began high school graduated, 63.5% of Hispanics, 64.2% of Indians, 81% of whites and 91% of Asians. Now, there are really only two ways to explain this disparity: 1) Asians are simply intellectually superior to all the other groups or 2) There are variables in American education and society that give advantage to some students that are not available to others. If you are a conservative you will probably choose 1, if you are a liberal you will definitely choose 2. If American education is a meritocracy ( trust me I have been an educator for more than 40 years, it is NOT) then there should not be a racial disparity unless there is something wrong with the race. Social Darwinists believe the cream rises to the top. So the kids who are successful in academic achievement are superior.

What the SDs might not know ( or might not care about if they did) is that poor schools have less resources than rich schools, that that translates to less well prepared teachers–students in rural and inner city schools have less than a 50% chance of being taught Math by someone who majored in it; more turnover in the faculty and staff;fewer curricular offerings–most rural and many inner city schools do not offer higher level math and science, and worse infrastructure–read inadequate labs and outdated books. Can we actually hold kids accountable for knowledge they have never had the chance to be exposed to, let alone learn?

If you have a poor k-12 experience your chances of getting into a good college are virtually nil. Kids do not pick their schools. Is it really a meritocracy when someone can afford to send their kid to Cary Academy, an elite high school in my hometown and that child gets to “compete” with a kid from a rural district where no Calculus or foreign languages or Physics is offered? Is that  meritocracy??Only if everyone’s parents have the same opportunities to make enough money to spend $20,000 a year on high school.

I will close with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell in his fabulous book Outliers.

“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard  and make sense of the world in ways other cannot.” (p.19)

I do have some pity for the Social Darwinists, the world they inhabit is one of isolation and beleaguered outrage. How dare “those people” want some of what I have? I am better than they are, that is obvious. Look at my car!”  Because I believe in karma I cannot help but believe they will find out some day, in this world or the next that no man is an island, and attempting to achieve your success like, to quote Dubois, crabs in a barrel climbing up on the backs of your fellow man will leave you not at the top of the barrel morally, but at the bottom of it.


4 responses to “The Myth of the Meritocracy and the resurgence of Social Darwinists

  1. Steve Lewis

    May 29, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    This is very one-sided. Although i do agree with some of it. There is alot of it that is wrong. I can find numbers that will support the moon being made of green cheese. It needs to show both sides of the problem and not do the typical name calling and finger pointing.

    • minerva5

      December 7, 2011 at 3:05 am

      First, there is no such word as alot. Second, I welcome discussion, disagreement, rebuttal, etc, but you have to provide something to support your assertions. What exactly is wrong? What proof do you have that it is wrong and not all problems have two sides, unless, of course, you refuse to agree with something simply because it does not fit your world view. You want to critique, you have to bring your A game here!

  2. Benny Moten

    June 4, 2013 at 1:04 am

    Great piece, on one of the most important economic and political issues of the 21st century. If you wish to read a bit more on this topic, let me recommend, from two very different perspectives: Anne Lawton, “The Meritocracy Myth and the Illusion of Equal Employment Opportunity”; Alison Ledgerwood et al “Working for the System: Motivated Defense of Meritocratic Beliefs.”


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