Meritocracy describes a system in which the people that are successful and get ahead, do so on their own merit and accomplishments. The concept of meritocracy grants all individuals a fair chance of success. In reality, the myth of meritocracy justifies the gaping inequalities in our society by attributing them to the skill and hard work of successful people and the incompetence and shortcomings of unsuccessful people. The fantasy of meritocracy portrays the world in a different way than it actually works.
The concept of meritocracy works only when white people receive unearned benefits. The United States was not built on a system of meritocracy, but a system of denied access. This mindset is a recurring theme throughout American history. I believe that we do live in a type of meritocracy, because people have had to achieve certain things to earn the privilege and wealth that they’ve passed on through generations. But meritocracy doesn’t give everyone a fair chance at success. When we see white people who have achieved success and established themselves in society, people attribute their accomplishments to hard work, but when people of color do just as well, people view their accomplishments as result of a handout.
Even if there are a few individuals who do succeed in the unfair system, it doesn’t qualify the system as fair. These individuals are either exceptionally skilled or exceptionally lucky, or both. This narrative is branded as “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” A perfect example of this narrative is Shawn Carter, who’s professionally known as Jay-Z. Carter is a rapper, songwriter, producer, entrepreneur, and record executive. He was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised by a single mother. Carter has been very open about his past in drug-dealing and growing up in a violent atmosphere. He used to sell his CD mixtapes from his car. Today, he has a networth of over $1 billion (France 2016).
Carter’s story is interestingly a rags-to-riches story. If you want to be successful, you just have to hustle and work until you get there. This ideology tells us that if you are not successful, you have no one to blame but yourself. Carter’s success is used as an example of how even people like Carter, who are black, grew up poor, and experienced hardships in his life, can make it big in the industry, so you can too. But Carter can very well be an exception to the rule.
The meritocracy system continues to be an unfair system to the non-elite because it “favors the rich even when everybody plays by the rules” (Illing 2019). There are other ways in which the rich can cheat their way in. Rich parents can provide the best babysitters and tutors, enroll their kids into private schools, with the best teachers and coaches. These children are simply doing better on their own merit, even though their parents aren’t necessarily bribing and donating with millions of dollars to get that recognition and privilege. Additionally, there have been many instances where rich parents have donated millions of dollars to colleges, universities, and institutions to bribe their children into these prestigious places.
Most recently, the college admissions scandal has taken this debate viral. Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among the 51 individuals who rigged the college admissions process to benefit their children. Loughlin and her husband paid a total of $500,000 to help their two daughters, Isabella and Olivia-Jade, gain admittance to the University of Southern California. Loughlin has pled not guilty (Taylor 2019).
The scandal is a prime example of privilege. They spent their money on bribery, taking away the spots of students who’ve academically earned it, even though they had the money and resources for their children to get in the right way. Surely, this isn’t the only scenario in which people in technology, or law, or business have acquired their job because their rich parents have paid their way through college.
In Some Principles of Stratification, Davis and Moore describe that as a function of stratification, “society must somehow distribute its members in social positions and induce them to perform the duties of these positions. It must thus concern itself with motivation at two different levels: to instill in the proper individuals the desire to fill certain positions, and, once in these positions, the desire to perform the duties attached to them” (242). But the proper individuals are not getting the position they’re qualified for because of the systemic oppression at place, making competition to rank a more difficult and unfair issue.
In conclusion, the idea of meritocracy is good in theory, but it will never work in practice. Even if we reward hard work, the capacity for hard work is itself the result of natural endowments and upbringing. So neither talent nor effort, the two things that would determine rewards in the world of the meritocracy, is itself something earned. The wealthy are able to use their money and power to open doors for their own, making it more likely that they will succeed in life, while poor people and marginalized people are expected to be exceptional.