Column: The Myth of Meritocracy and Compounding Advantage of Advantage

For the Valley News
Published: 3/17/2018 10:30:10 PM
Modified: 3/17/2018 10:30:11 PM

I am a privileged white man. Both white privilege and male privilege are dominant facets of America’s social construct, yet far too many white and male Americans vehemently deny their own privilege. That’s unfortunate and unnecessary. Admitting privilege doesn’t mean that you have to give it up. You can’t. But admitting it is a start. And we should be challenging each other to do so.

The denial of privilege is fueled by the twin American myths of meritocracy and rugged individualism. I believe this is at the core of the political and social divide that threatens to rend the fabric of our country.

The notion of meritocracy is deceptive, as it is appealing on the surface and fundamentally dishonest beneath. The social and legal concept of “merit” is superficially attractive in that it purports to reward on the basis of industry, honesty, productivity, ingenuity and other qualities one may cultivate through effort and persistence. The fundamental dishonesty is that a meritocratic view conveniently ignores the power and privilege beneath the achievement.

This plays out in education and employment, both in policy and practice. The conservative antipathy toward affirmative action is a good example. While some fragments of affirmative action in education and employment remain intact, their political and legal foundations are increasingly fragile. White folks have been convinced by conservative media and politicians that they are now being disadvantaged, despite inheriting several centuries of advantage.

To be white is to enjoy many things: a greater likelihood of inheriting property or wealth, a greater likelihood of having been raised in a community with resources not shared by people of color, a greater likelihood of relationships that can facilitate education choice or successful job application.

To be white is also to be safe from many things: a lesser chance of being prejudged by skin color, a lesser chance of growing up in poverty, a lesser chance of being incarcerated for a minor crime, a lesser chance of being stopped and frisked or followed in a store, a lesser chance of growing up in a neighborhood with environmental hazards.

One might easily construct similar lists of advantages of being male and the things males are safe from, including Harvey Weinstein.

Because of the meritocracy myth, poverty and lower levels of achievement are attributed by many conservatives to lack of effort or, more offensively, lack of intelligence. This is precisely manifested in approaches to education and social policy. In education, conservatives have adopted a “no excuses” approach to students of color, implicitly ascribing lower achievement to a lack of effort. What “they” need is tougher discipline, including corporal punishment, more homework, and longer school days.

The manifestation of this set of beliefs can reach tragi-comic proportions as it did in the aftermath of the slaughter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Both President Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio attributed the slaughter, in part, to the Obama guidelines seeking to address inequity in school discipline. Obama was responding to the reality that boys of color are far more likely to experience draconian punishment for “offenses” for which their white classmates get a wrist slap.

But in Trump world, even the murders committed by a white student can be blamed on not being “tough” enough on students of color.

The conservative approach to unemployment and underemployment is to insist on instilling a “work ethic,” implicitly equating poverty with laziness. The Trump intent to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients is a particularly mean-spirited symptom of this misapplication of meritocracy. It seems that many conservatives believe that a person’s disability is a consequence of her sloth. It is ironic that those on Medicaid because of disability are often afflicted because of work circumstances inflicted by their wealthy employers.

Trump might see it differently if he took the subway or bus in his hometown and saw the millions of poor workers of color who rise early to care for their own children before traveling several hours to care for white children of the wealthy. Millions of people living in poverty have put in a day’s work before Donald Trump finishes his morning Tweets and “executive time” in front of the television.

The corollary is the adulation of wealth and success. If one accepts the basic premise of a meritocracy, then achievement must inevitably be a consequence of individual effort, productivity and ingenuity. It is why some Americans stubbornly support a man like Donald Trump. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, his wealth and power alone convince people that he is a man of great accomplishment.

The myth of meritocracy is perpetuated by anecdotes of success and the existence of poor white folks. Oprah, Obama and other successful black or female people ostensibly prove that the playing field is level. And, amazingly, such success is both cited as proof of meritocracy and simultaneously resented. And poverty among white folks in America proves that white privilege is the myth.

Exceptions don’t prove the rule. It’s like using healthy smokers to deny the dangers of tobacco.

For white folks, especially white men, embracing this mythology provides a convenient mechanism for denying the persistence of systemic, institutional racism and sexism, while ignoring the ever-compounding advantage of advantage.

Social progress has been possible only when Americans faced issues of privilege and power with humility and honesty. We can only hope such a time will come again.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at stevehutnelson@

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