A Land of False Promises – Deconstructing the Mythology of Meritocracy and Equal Opportunity

by Shaun Terry

You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” – Howard Zinn

The ideal of disseminating greater freedom proved paramount in the formation of America. It is a credit to the founding fathers that they were able to achieve this goal to the great degree that they were. Despite (or, perhaps, it could be argued, because of) this accomplishment, the American constitution now holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest (National Constitution Center 2014). Yestercentury’s radical dreams have found their ways into Americans’ hearts, minds, and bones. As such, the government of the world’s preeminent superpower is, perhaps, operating like an 18th century relic.

Hegel, in 1821, noted, “As for the individual, everyone is a son of his time; so philosophy also is its time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as foolish to fancy that any philosophy can transcend its present world, as that an individual could leap out of his time or jump over Rhodes” (P. 18). Yet, American leaders clutch to the residue of Enlightenment philosophy, including Lockean property rights (1689). Meritocratic ideals come from long before the Enlightenment, but they seem to remain foundational to American culture.

Britain’s feudal system made social mobility an unrealistic expectation. It was not until Chinese meritocracy was imported by the British East India Company that some Enlightenment thinkers were inspired to advocate for abolishing or weakening the monarchy (Elman 2013). Meritocracy provided a well-reasoned argument for greater opportunities: if the pool of people to choose from is widened, then better candidates may be found. This reasoning may or may not have borne out, but it very likely provided more freedom and opportunities to China’s poor.

Just as China’s meritocratic civil services examination influenced Britain, Britain’s Enlightenment thinking was imported, and expanded upon, by Americans (Elman 2013). Meritocracy founded much of the literature of America’s formation. The founders had grown tired of rule by a king in a distant land, with no voice of their own, and no freedom to rule themselves. Plainly, the monarchy and aristocracy interfered with Americans’ abilities to do what, for them, made the most sense. This rebellion to British feudalism led to a dramatic change in America’s form of government. America’s new government created more opportunities for many underprivileged Americans.

Today, the rhetoric of “The American Dream” and “equal opportunities for all” helps to form the roots of American culture. The idea behind this rhetoric seems to be that any person with enough gumption and persistence can be as wealthy and free as she wants. In the minds of many, anyone willing to take what is offered can have absolute freedom, but evidence suggests that this assertion is contrary to reality.

If meritocracy were working as it is designed to – providing broad opportunity – there would be movement between social classes. Instead, we see social entrenchment.

It is no well-kept secret that the wealthy are getting wealthier, while incomes for the poor and middle class stagnate. Reich, featured in Kornbluth, has made income inequality central to his work (2013). He often shows that income inequality was as high just before the Great Depression as it was leading up to the Great Recession (Kornbluth 2013). Piketty argues that this wealth concentration is a hallmark of capitalism, despite meritocratic arguments seemingly buttressed by a period of relative equality in the mid-20th century (2014).

From the end of the Second World War until the mid-1970s, America moved toward unprecedented equality (Piketty 2014). Piketty describes anomalous features that created this period of equality: two world wars, the Great Depression, and a recession fueled by debt – particularly, debt of the elites (2014). To regain forward momentum, redistribution of wealth was necessary. Social programs, work projects, and a progressive income tax created a more-level playing field. Never-before-seen expansion of government coincided with recapitalization of the proletariat, and spurred demand for products and services.

During that period, it was reasonable to think that an American, starting from humble beginnings, could work her (by “her,” I mean “his”) way into the middle class. In the 1960s, income equality peaked. Relative to earnings for the wealthiest, minimum wage equated to $21.16, after adjusting for inflation (Babones 2014).

America was becoming freer, with greater social mobility than ever before. This period has proven to be instrumental in the dissemination and perpetuation of the myth of American meritocracy. This time may appear to be a prime example of the value in meritocracy. However, the rights of underprivileged groups remained (and continue to remain) far behind those of privileged white men.

Research into meritocracy shows that outcomes remain unequal between population subgroups. It seems clear, to even the most casual observer, that race and poverty in America are intertwined. While minorities see unjust outcomes, so do underprivileged Whites, and this is an important point. But it does nothing to diminish the apparent fact that minorities face unique forms of discrimination. Blacks and Latinos experience poverty at a higher rate than Whites do. Racial inequalities, that are completely separate of socio-economic discriminations, ensure that poor Blacks and poor Latinos face more injustices than do Whites, poor or otherwise (“Poverty in the United States: Frequently Asked Questions” 2011). A field study showed that Black men and Hispanic men have a harder time finding work than do White men (Pager, Bonikowski, and Western 2009). Members of each cohort demonstrated job qualifications equal to those of the other cohorts (Pager, Bonikowski, and Western 2009). To make matters worse, the Black participants and Latino participants had clean records, while the White participants were convicted felons (Pager, Bonikowski, and Western 2009). Finally, prospective employers channeled minority candidates into lower-status, lower-paying jobs, while they channeled White candidates into higher-paying, higher-status jobs (Pager, Bonikowski, and Western 2009). Over the past fifty years, the impact of this sort of discrimination seems to have worsened; Black males have a harder time finding work than Black males did in the 1960s – the end of the Civil Rights Movement (Wagmiller and Lee 2014). To look at compensation, equally-performing workers see unequal rewards, based, largely, on racial discrimination and gender discrimination (Castilla 2008). In addition to workplace discrimination, minorities face discrimination in housing, credit, and consumer markets (Pager and Shepherd 2008).

One might assume that The Civil Rights Movement should have led to solutions to these and other problems. It was a time where more equality was created, greater social progress was made, and opportunities were more abundant than ever before. But it would not last for long, as the source of much of this equality would soon be undermined.

Education, some opine, has the power to provide fully equal opportunities. But in America, higher education has been, gradually, de-funded. The progress that was being made toward equality and social justice has been undercut as education has been de-emphasized.

In 1944, Roosevelt’s passage of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, otherwise known as the G. I. Bill, coupled with Cold War pressures for research to provide unprecedented access to higher education. From 1958 to 1965, the University of California (UC) added eight campuses to its existing two – an increase of 400% (Bady and Konczal 2012). Since 1965, one new campus has been incorporated into the UC system (Bady and Konczal 2012).

In America, the 1960s were a time of considerable unrest. A better-educated populace grew listless of a system that favored well-to-do white men. But the power-holders of that time would not remain quiet or complacent.

With the election of Ronald Reagan to the California governorship, in 1966, the UC system was in for dramatic changes. Reagan used large police forces in response to nonviolent protests (Bady and Konczal 2012). While it had been free of tuition and fees to California residents, 1969 saw fees introduced. The UC system has never recovered; today, the cost is prohibitive to many students (Bady and Konczal 2012). In a twist of irony, protests on UC campuses have, recently, been a frequent occurrence, despite the persistence of large Reaganian police forces (Bady and Konczal 2012).

On a national scale, policy has not looked much different from California’s. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission produced a report that claimed that America’s education had led to dangerous power in the hands of the people, and dangerous distrust in government’s authority (Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki 1975). The impact of this report may be debatable, but the fact is that this report preceded widespread, albeit gradual, de-funding for higher education. While progress for higher education seems to have been reversed, it may be that primary education has never seen the progress that it has always needed.

Many seem to paint education as a sacred cow, and for good reason, it seems. To note the rhetoric surrounding this great equalizer – the area where the best and brightest hone their skills to play vital roles in America’s future – one might assume that America must be getting the most out of its citizenry. On the surface, it may appear that no one should dare engage in any policy that does not ensure America’s best possible education system. It may seem sacrilegious to provide anything but a level playing field to poor American geniuses, all the underprivileged stars of tomorrow, born into the wrong homes.

The research demonstrates that high schoolers’ races and genders, and the racial makeups of their high schools influence the tracks that high schoolers are placed on (Southworth and Mickelson 2007). This means that what kinds of courses these teenagers take, the quality of their teachers, and the kids that attend classes with them are determined, at least in part, by these kids’ races, their genders, and the racial makeups of their schools (Southworth and Mickelson 2007). In 1978, a study concluded that educational differences cause income disparities between races (Wright). Wright argued that these educational differences are products of nothing more than socio-economic status, while conceding that the mean income for black workers was 75% of white workers’ mean income (1978). His argument seems to be that race affects neither education outcomes nor income returns on education. (Wright 1978). The fact that Blacks make 75% of what their White counterparts make, he seems to be saying, is evidence that racism in America is not as bad as some people claim. New research seems to disprove the idea that racial injustices are only products of socio-economic unfairnesses. Fryer and Levitt show that equivalently-performing kindergartners fall behind white classmates within two years, despite accounting for socio-economic factors (2004). Apparently, even Black and White kindergartners are not free from systemic discrimination.

The role of education is a cornerstone of the idea of meritocracy. In a perfect meritocracy, ascriptions would be invisible, when looking at faceless, nameless data, but this is not the case. The idea that social stratification is merely a product of educational attainment does not seem to hold water (Krauze and Slomczynski 1985).

Despite “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric that speaks to millionaires and billionaires rising up the social ladder from the poorest conditions, the playing field appears riddled with unconquerable mountains and bottomless trenches. In fact, the education provided to someone is an excellent indicator for where, socio-economically speaking, a person is to end up. This means that so-called “self-made wealthy” are extreme exceptions to a very safe rule. To whatever degree poor people are able to take advantage of what the system has to offer, these people are exceptional.

In fact, meritocracy does not seem to exist on a broad scale in America, no matter the definition. While it seems that only 10% of the rich claim “inheritance” as the source of their wealth, the mean of wealth transfers (inherited wealth) among the top 1% is $2.7 million, while the mean for those making under $25,000 is only $6,100 (Frank 2008; and Wolff and Gittleman 2011). The mean for each group between these extremes follows a steep, perhaps even exponential, gradient. The evidence seems clear: the data claim that at least 62% of the 400 richest Americans, according to Forbes, either inherited their wealth or inherited huge advantages in creating it (Chittum 2012).

The wealthy seem to be the staunchest advocates for meritocracy, with people being less enthusiastic toward it as one looks further down the socio-economic ladder (Kunovich and Slomczynski 2007). If meritocracy is illusory, then it seems that the American elite have the most to gain by perpetuating this myth.

In fairness, some institutions are more meritocratic than others. But in spite of all its plaudits and advocacy, meritocracy seems rife with flaws. It is hard to get around the fact that meritocracy does not seem to pervade American society quite in the way that some might argue that it does. In the most meritocratic cases, the system does not seem, as some might suggest, blind to the designations of race, ethnicity, gender, socio-economic status, etc. that, traditionally, have made leaders.

People are all born into differing situations, with differing advantages and disadvantages, and those situations are further altered by circumstances that are encountered throughout people’s lives. It seems that, by the time a person sees reward or punishment, external mechanisms have, long since, sorted her into her destined socio-economic status. Marmot makes an empirical argument that constituent aspects of socio-economic status go a long way in determining health and mortality (Marmot 2005). These aspects seem to relate with each other such that low socio-economic status causes ill health, and ill health causes low socio-economic status. The constituent aspects that Marmot speaks of are products of the American system – a system that only can operate by the broad consent allowed by widespread belief in meritocracy (2005). If this is the case, then inequities that come from what Americans call “Meritocracy” are a source for shortening human lives; death by “Meritocracy,” as it were. If meritocratic thinking creates, instead of equality, vastly unequal outcomes, then, perhaps, it is only an arbitrary rationalization for oppression.

It is sometimes argued that “some inequality is good,” with some people asking, “Well, how much equality is appropriate?” These, on their faces, may seem like legitimate contentions. However, it does not appear that, if a situation cannot be made perfect, there is no point in trying. If people see oppression around them, then rationalizing oppression only makes them complicit in the forced labor of underprivileged people. This complicity is necessary for the perpetuation of meritocratic thinking, and the system that it allows. Regardless of how imperfect any solution may be, it seems unreasonable to think that this system should be perpetuated.

At best, meritocracy seems to produce the veil under which oppression operates; it is the hopeful illusion, thrust upon the masses, that allows hegemony to sap production from underprivileged workers for gains by the power elite. And there does not appear to be any momentum toward correcting these inequities.

Many people agree that education plays a foundational role in creating equity. But American leaders continue to argue for de-funding both primary and higher education. This agenda is often hidden under the auspices of budgetary concerns, greater focus on job-producing majors of study, injecting the leadership of America’s best and brightest corporate heroes, etc.; even the cloak of aims to create equity has been a culprit for inequitable policies and rollbacks of funds. These sorts of policies do not seem useful.

Hegel stated that philosophies are artifacts of the times that produce them (1821). I doubt that he envisioned a world where Americans would, four hundred-and-counting years later, argue for Enlightenment ideas. The expansion of rights to the lower castes was overdue. It was a time where much of the intelligentsia and the power elite worried over the plight of the virtuous poor. Americans now live in a post-Randian society where the poor are the enemy – they are the thieves, the liars, the drug addicts, the whores, the assailants, and the diseased. Poverty is criminal, and the punishment is pervasive.

It stands to benefit those in power that the pervasion of the notion of meritocracy should persist. Were the poor to decide that the rich do not deserve outsized power and reward, the rich may be in for a good deal of trouble; at least, likely sacrifices. Further, the idea of meritocracy provides some delusional hope to those outside the elite. The argument that meritocracy is no more than a tidy, idealistic rationalization, for exploitation of the unsuspecting masses, seems compelling, and right. Still, meritocracy forms a base for much of what seems to be American culture. John Steinbeck reportedly said that “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Maybe he is right, and if so, what a clever trick.


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