As I was running this morning, I was wrestling with the concept of America being or not being a meritocracy. I had read an article the night before presenting what happens when students take a class on racism and how one aspect of understanding the role of race and racism in America involves realizing America is not a meritocracy.
That statement, “America is not a meritocracy” makes me stop and pause because it goes against so much of what I learned growing up. Based on my college studies and experiences afterward, I know the statement is correct, but I still have an emotional stake in its truth.
First from the Oxford English Dictionary, a definition of meritocracy:
“Government or the holding of power by people chosen on the basis of merit (as opposed to wealth, social class, etc.); a society governed by such people or in which such people hold power; a ruling, powerful, or influential class of educated or able people. Also in extended use.
Originally spec. with reference to ‘merit’ as assessed by a competitive educational system.”
When I think about who holds power in America, I know America is not a meritocracy. Those with wealth have greater access to education and other resources and thus are more likely to be judged meritorious and selected for position of leadership. I grew up in the upper middle class and had access to a private school education followed by four years a selective college to which I was admitted in part because my father went there. If America were a meritocracy, all students would receive the same education in equal schools and then compete from that start for admission to college based on skills and traits they had an equal opportunity to hone, and I likely would not be where I am today.
If one does not want to start with education, then when it comes to employment and promotion in a meritocracy the hiring process would be based only on one’s skills and performance with no networking or connections involved. If one can get a job because one’s family or friends have a connection to the person in power, that is not a meritocracy. One’s merit did not make one stand out from the pool of applicants.
Then one must factor race into the equation. Considering the great gap in family wealth between black and white families (see above graph), black families may not be able to provide for their children the education and access to resources provided for white children. This lack of resources in many cases means that while a student may have great merit, forces of race and class inhibit prevent him or her from achieving the outcomes a student of equal merit but greater resources might achieve. Likewise, without the wealth necessary for a place in the American elite, a black family is less likely to have the connections that would help a child of merit stand out and be chosen for a position.
This analysis saddens me, and I hate to believe in its truth. I know from my studies that it is true, that American is not a meritocracy. Once one gets to a certain level some decisions may be based on merit, but getting to that level takes money which can purchase opportunities, and the history of race in American determines who has that money.
It all comes down to the fact that I want to believe that I somehow earned my childhood in a big house on a hill, prep school education, and inherited financial resources, when in fact I did not. However meritorious I am had little to do with my advantageous beginning in American society. Yes, I could have squandered those advantages, but even then I would have more chances to get back up, recover, and pursue success, chances those with much greater merit but fewer lucky quirks of birth would not have.