The Meritocracy Myth

My father was an army officer, and my mother was a homemaker until I was 9. That’s when they bought property that required her to work. She was a receptionist. We were squarely lower middle class, doing well enough. It never occurred to me that we were underprivileged.

I ended up attending a ridiculously small, rural school (9 kids in my class) with few course offerings beyond the basics. I was Salutatorian of my class, but when I took the SAT and ACT, I felt that I had suffered in my math education, in particular. I made up for this lack by majoring in Liberal Arts and avoiding it entirely. My parents paid for my college. It was affordable then, and I’m grateful. My degree in English eventually led to a good career as a technical writer. I feel very fortunate.

My wife, Ahnna, by contrast, grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Her father was an MIT professor who built the first working electron microscope on the continent. He worked with the likes of Francis Crick and James Watson on their research. Ahnna’s mom hated Francis, whose hands were always where they shouldn’t be at cocktail parties. Ahnna’s mom was a beautiful woman. Her professor father, though, was also an alcoholic and ended up being dismissed by MIT years later, some time after Ahnna’s parents divorced. He died of lung cancer in rural Arkansas, where he spent most of his last years alone.

Most of Ahnna’s secondary education was spent at a private ivy-league prep school in Connecticut. Due to failing finances, her mother and stepfather had to take them out of the fancy school to finish their education. As the disabled child of one in four kids, Ahnna had to pay her way through much of her college. Her father, in Arkansas, could occasionally be persuaded to send her a check, but mostly she got by with a long-term babysitting gig. She still considers those girls to be “her kids.”

The difference between Ahnna’s upbringing and mine is pretty vast. Her parents were mostly liberal and well educated. Mine were extremely conservative and largely ignorant. But then, I have always felt that I was an apple that fell a long way from the tree.

A few years ago, an old school friend of Ahnna’s came to stay with us awhile. He had the ivy-league prep school advantage, his father’s money behind him, and went on to Emory to pursue a degree in law, like his father. Their fellow classmates included people like Tracy Chapman, the daughter of Martin Luther King’s lawyer, Mary Travers’ daughter, and other children of celebrities and well-to-do or influential people. In contrast, my classmates were the children of simple farmers, machinists, and factory workers — mostly blue collar. No one you’ve ever heard of. Worlds apart.

After the old prep school friend had been with us awhile, he determined that a composter would be useful. Indeed, I’d thought of getting one for some time, but they can be expensive, and I had other priorities. So I was absolutely flabbergasted when he called up his old friend from school, who was president of a garden supply company, and asked him to send us one. For free. And he did.

This illuminated me on why so much of meritocracy is a lie. By virtue of his birth to a well-off lawyer in New England who could send him to a fancy prep school, this man had made contacts that would serve him for the rest of his life. Company presidents, bankers, people who knew people. People who would be willing to do him the favor of a free composter. And here’s another difference: it would never have occurred to me to ask a friend for something free from their company. Ever. But when you move in elite circles, there is a certain quid pro quo. It’s like being part of a secret club, and the members help each other out, because they know that they might need the favor returned down the line. With a job. A contact. A loan. Who knows?

Meritocracy is the belief that an individual makes it in life solely on their own merits. In other words, if you work hard, you will be successful and get ahead. While it is certainly true that you won’t get far if you don’t work hard and put your best effort into things, that alone does not guarantee success.

I witnessed the rise and fall of the best damn coffee company in the world in Austin, Texas. They made their own unique drink, literally the best I’ve ever had or will have. But they were competing with Starbucks. They did develop their own following, though, largely based on the personality of the owner, who had a star-like quality. They even expanded to four stores at one point. I invested in them. But uncontrollable shit happened, like construction around their newly opened downtown store that cut into their traffic. That location had to close. A misstep on the books. Another store closed. And it’s not like they didn’t work hard. The owner had a cot in the back room of his main store and often worked from 7am until close at 10pm. He worked hard, all right. And still, after a number of years, the business failed. Why? Because there are a lot of variables that you cannot control. Sometimes it’s just pure bad luck.

If the owner of this coffee shop had had an investor with the vision to help make it happen, I think they’d still be around today. It’s damn hard to start if your resources are meager to begin with. He didn’t have ivy league buddies.

Now, I’m not trying to disparage prep school kids or ivy leaguers. But they have a built-in advantage that all but guarantees their success. George W. Bush got into Yale because his father did. He made Cs. He had contacts to get him into high-powered businesses. Politics. You know the rest. Candidates for president seldom come from public schools.

And yet, the meritocracy myth endures. These people succeeded on the basis of “their own hard work.” Well, that isn’t the whole truth. Likewise, this myth is used to disparage the lower classes, but particularly minorities: poor black kids, the myth goes, don’t get ahead because they’re lazy and would rather live off welfare. But the poor black kid from the impoverished areas doesn’t have prep school buddies to leverage. They don’t have easy access to money and the other markers of privilege. Of course, every now and then a black kid (or Latino, etc) does break out of poverty and becomes successful. People might point to Ben Carson, for example, as “proof” that any black kid could achieve that if they only bothered to try. But the rare exception does not make the rule. It’s like comparing a horse race between a well-maintained and well-trained horse and one that has been undernourished and weighed down with 100 pounds on its back. The latter horse may indeed cross the finish line. It may also collapse under the weight on its back.

There is one other strand that winds its way through the meritocracy myth, and that is the current Prosperity Theology espoused by many American evangelicals. According to Prosperity Theology, God wants to bless his believers with financial prosperity, and if you are wealthy, then it is a sign that you have been worthy of this blessing. If you are not wealthy or are struggling, then God has not favored you, and you have fucked up. This is a very convenient belief, because it validates evangelical ministers for being ridiculously, obscenely wealthy (they “kept faith”). It is also a convenience to believe that if someone is poor, sick, or struggling, then that’s just too bad for them, because it’s their own fault. In short: “I can wash my hands of your problems.”

It is astonishing that a religion based on belief in a man who healed the sick and tended the poor and who owned practically nothing, who exhorted his followers repeatedly to give to the poor, has produced this very American evangelical view that you can ignore the poor completely and still excuse your conscience about it. This is the spiritual version of the meritocracy: if you are struggling, not only are you not working hard enough, but you’re clearly morally lacking as well, because God would have blessed you if you deserved it. Wow.

The white classes are more likely to believe these than minority classes. And why not? Why feel guilt about the plight of others if you have a handy excuse? Of course, even white people struggle with sickness and poverty. This isn’t a racial problem; it’s a class problem. Making excuses on the basis of DNA will not change that.

We must change how we think if we want to move ahead and create a just society. Life cannot be about “us vs. them.” We have to stop the automatic judgments based on birth, class, race, income, and material possessions. None of these matter in the end. We must care for one another, not throw each other under the bus. I have observed that those who do not care for others beyond themselves often end their lives alone. Ahnna’s father was nearly dead on the floor of his cabin when a neighbor found him and took him to the hospital, where he died. With no one there to love him. I would not wish this on anyone. Caring about others, helping others, these are actually acts of self-care. They enrich us, they increase the love for us. The alternative is grim.

“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
~Matthew 8:20