The Myth of Meritocracy and How it Upholds White Supremacy Culture
Originally published June 2020
This topic is probably old news to some of you, but I want to talk about the myth of meritocracy. I was raised to believe that the system in the U.S.A. rewarded good people who tried their best. That was my experience of going to public school in mostly white parts of Wisconsin. You try hard, you show up, and you follow the rules (or at least don’t get caught), and you will get good grades and praise from the teachers. The idea of meritocracy was also implicit in the version of Christianity that I grew up in. If you are a good person, you will go to heaven.
My gut understanding was that the society based on meritocracy is like a ladder that you climb. You work through different levels of school and different levels of jobs, and hard work will be rewarded along the way. Success is earned and so successful people must have earned it. I knew about very rich people and I knew about inherited wealth, and that all seemed wrong to me, but those people seemed like outliers within a system that seemed generally to be built on merit.
Within the idea of meritocracy is the corollary idea if a person can succeed in life based on their own merits, then anyone who is not successful must deserve not to be successful. This manifested for me in the disdain (to my shame now) I felt for my peers in school who were not able to make passing grades. They were in a system that was designed to measure merit, and they were not measuring up. They were the equivalent of sinners in the church system. If they got bad grades and failed, or their sin sent them to hell, then that was on them, their own fault.
It is expedient for people in power to have the citizens who live in a rigged society to believe that the system is fair. If you are doing well in a rigged system that you believe is a meritocracy, then you might think that God has blessed you because of your good deeds or that you deserve everything you get. You might think that your superior position means you ARE superior. Likewise, if you are doing poorly in a rigged system, you might think it is your own fault or that God is against you because of something you did. Note: it is harder for the person who is being oppressed to believe that they deserve to be oppressed. That is why a system of oppression needs enforcers.
If you (falsely) believe that you are superior, then you might enact laws that benefit you and other “superior” people. You might take on a paternalistic attitude towards those who are “less fortunate,” and either try to help them or just judge them from afar. If you believe you are superior, and you think someone is budging in front of you in line (affirmative action!), then you will feel righteous outrage. Believing yourself to be superior might make you feel like you deserve to be where you are — in your nice house, with your nice car, and your nice job. It doesn’t feel like privilege, because you have worked so hard to get there and stay there.
It is odd for me to be thinking about meritocracy right now. I let go of it long ago as an intellectual construct. I have schooled myself about the evils of unchecked capitalism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. I have read and watched countless stories about how the system is rigged. This is the counter narrative to the meritocracy myth: the idea that the world is controlled by a small group of people who don’t deserve to be in charge. This describes my current intellectual worldview, while in my heart I probably still try to cling to meritocracy. Climate change and racism must be stopped, but the political system is unable to do anything about either, because elections depend on money, and the moneyed interests want to continue benefiting from oppression and environmental destruction. Believing that the system is rigged and unchangeable can be just as disempowering as believing that the system is fair and people deserve to be where they are.
This week at a protest I watched the organizers ask white people to sit down and listen while people of the global majority told their stories. Since then I have populated my consumption of media with black and brown faces and black and brown voices. Any ideas that were still held in my heart that we live in a meritocracy are (hopefully) gone. Every black voice told personal stories of unjust actions by police. Every female voice I have heard over the years has told stories of sexism and male domination. Every voice of a poor person has told stories of economic hardship. My ability to have retained my core belief that the system is a meritocracy for so long is a testament to my position of privilege within the system. As a person who carries the identities of white, male, raised Christian, straight, college educated, and able-bodied, I live within a society that seems like a meritocracy. If I hear other voices, I can turn them up or down depending on how busy I am working to justify my continued presence in system. This week I could not, and did not, turn the other voices down.
I work with young people. There are not “good” children and “bad” children. You cannot take a room full of children and rank them based on who is better or worse as a human. They are all good. No child (and no adult either) deserves to go to hell. Meritocracy is a leftover mindset from Social Darwinism, which was discredited years ago. Children may have different interests, abilities, and circumstances, but they are all good and all deserve an environment where they can learn and thrive. That is obvious to me. I would like to see all schools let go of the belief that rewards and punishments are necessary to teach children. That system has been discredited too. School should not be about children proving how worthy they are. School should acknowledge that all children want to learn and want to contribute to their community and they just need opportunities for both.
Those in power in society are not there solely by their own merit. The fact that the system is currently rigged doesn’t mean that it will always be that way. In fact, most systems of oppression have failed over time. The current oppressive system seems close to a global collapse. These are scary times. We humans need to be ready with a new vision for what will replace current system.
I don’t believe in meritocracy anymore. Humans should not have to do anything to justify their worth. This is radical because it requires a hopeful vision of human nature. I think that adults and children would continue to live their lives and be contributive members of society, even if they were not trying to maintain a spot in the meritocracy. Undermining meritocracy would have the added benefit that we would see all people as human, without some being more deserving of the name than others.
When I think about the idea of community policing, it requires a similar hopeful vision of human nature. We will need to shift our collective mindset.