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The Myth of Meritocracy

January 8, 2014

How the cards are stacked against some and in favor of others by accident of birth.

“It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” –George Carlin

From the age of 9 until about ten years later, when I was a sophomore in college, I aspired to become President of the United States. Then I changed my mind because I figured that US Senators had a better deal: longer terms and no term limits. I never thought I couldn’t be President because I am female and the United States had never had a woman President. I always thought that people who did not believe they could do or be something just because nobody who “looks like me” had done it before them were, to put it plainly, wusses. I still do. Somebody has to be the first, so why not you?

Although I have long since abandoned my presidential ambitions, there is still a part of me that wants to believe that we all can be whatever we want to be if we work hard, develop our talents, and have what Latinos call “las ganas”, the passionate desire to achieve a goal.

That is a leftover piece of the American Dream that must still be in my blood. Americans don’t want to believe in fate. If we have the ability and the desire and the willingness to work hard, the golden doors of opportunity must open to our desires, right?

In the United States, as in other countries, a person may achieve success, defined here as high status and high income, in many ways, but only in one shape—a pyramid. The higher up you go in any field, the fewer places there are. It is a cruel game of process of elimination. The fact that we have gotten rid of many, though not all, of the legal barriers to achievement, does not mean that discrimination has disappeared. The fact that we now have twice elected a black president is an exception that proves the rule.

Barack Obama, first elected President in 2008, is the first black man to sit in the Oval Office, yet slavery was formally abolished by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. His strongest opponent for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency was a woman, Hillary Clinton, whose mother was born in 1918, when the United States was still two years away from the passage of the 20th Amendment, which gave all female citizens the right to vote. We are not yet in a post-racial or post-gender society and will not be until the press and the people stop talking about a candidate’s skin color or gender, and in the case of female candidates, their fashion sense. We need to be able to see each other as people, give and take mentoring based on who has the best information and who needs it the most, and not what mentor or mentee looks like. We need to be able to evaluate ideas on their merit and not on the social identity of whomever has put them forth. Then we can have a level playing field and make success truly available based on ability. But until then, people need to be aware that their chances in life are largely shaped by factors determined at birth.

The United States, thanks to that propaganda called the American Dream, has a reputation for high social mobility, but in fact the class you were born into says a lot about the class you will be in as an adult. According to research from University of Ottawa economist and current Russell Sage Foundation Fellow Miles Corak, the United States has the third lowest economic mobility among the major developed nations outranking only Italy and the class-conscious United Kingdom.

The zip code you were born into determines your social mobility. The Equality of Opportunity Project shows that income mobility varies significantly in the United States according to geography, with the lowest mobility in the southeast region. Check your child’s chances of moving from the bottom fifth in income to the top fifth on this interactiveNew York Times map. By the way, top fifth does not mean millionaire. Your child will be in the top 5th by making $70,000 by age 30 and $100,000 by age 45

The cards are stacked against you if you are born black. Oprah Winfrey not withstanding, if you are born a black woman in the United States, your wages are likely to be the lowest, after white men, white women and black men. Oprah herself built her empire in media; acting, music and athletics are the surest ways for black people to achieve success and social mobility in the United States. But while this one black woman is a billionaire, today, the number of black-owned and operated full power TV stations in the United States is zero, with Roberts’ Broadcasting’s announcement of a deal to sell its three stations to the ION media network.

Joseph Torres and S. Derek Turner, who wrote about this forsaid, “Our nation’s history of discrimination created a lack of wealth in communities of color, and without access to capital, people of color find themselves permanently on the outside.”

Being born into a family that can provide inherited wealth insulates you from economic troubles that would knock you out of the top two-fifths otherwise. Inherited wealth is a private safety net that is much less subject to the vicissitudes of politics than the ever-thinner public safety net is. But there is a great disparity in inherited wealth between black and white families in the United States. You are more likely to inherit wealth and more of it, if you are white.

Not only does inherited wealth enable families to afford the best education for their children, but it also affords a child seed money with which to start a business. Thus, Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, had the means to start the company that made him and partners such as Paul Allen among the world’s wealthiest men. The Koch Brothers and the Walton heirs are others who have benefited from inherited wealth. On the other hand, many people who work in the fast food and retail empires run by these extremely wealthy families need public programs such as food stamps and Medicaid to make up for the very low wages.

Being born into wealth confers not only a buffer against general hard times, it shields one against the consequences of personal limitations. For this, my example is none other than George W. Bush. Whether or not you agree with his politics, you have to wonder if a man who is so well known for malapropisms that they are known as Bushspeak or Bushisms, and are still followed as such, could ever have become President if he had been born into the middle or lower classes instead of being born the grandson of a wealthy banker who became a US Senator (Prescott Bush) and a father, George H.W. Bush, who was also successful in the oil business and eventually became CIA Director, Vice President and President of the United States?

How else but through being born to privilege could a man who said Families is where our nation finds hope and where wings take dream.” President? Non-blue bloods with such poor language skills are unemployable in high status jobs.

Classism and other forms of discrimination are not purely American phenomena. Nor are they strictly the products of capitalism. People have been born into severe inequality and discrimination all around the world for thousands of years. If humans are ever going to achieve more universal justice, peace and prosperity in their economic systems, they first must acknowledge that economic and social position is largely determined at birth. They must be consciously aware that the degree to which hard work will create good results depends in large part on also having other factors present, such as being the right race, gender, age, religion, and ethnicity, having inherited wealth, the right social connections, and plain, old-fashioned good luck, (and good looks).

The myth of meritocracy is particularly strong in the United States. Conservatives excuse the nation’s vast and growing income inequality with the claim that upward social mobility is open to anyone who will work hard and play by the rules. But the rules of game are fixed to favor some people and disfavor others by accident of birth. A true meritocracy requires a level playing field.

About the author: Kellia Ramares-Watson is an independent journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of the e-book Eating Poison: Food, Drugs and Health. In 2014, her commentaries will appear every other week (twice a month) in the Leftist Review. Different commentaries will appear on alternate weeks on the website Intrepid Report. She can be reached at theendofmoney[at]gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @endofmoney.


2 Responses to The Myth of Meritocracy

  1. Kellia on January 19, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    But when blue collar people fail as much as Bush did, they don’t end up as President, albeit a bad one.

  2. E.Brock on January 14, 2014 at 5:06 pm

    Having grown up blue collar I can tell you there isn’t much you get to start out with other than your own drive and some luck maybe. Bush failed at most of the things he attempted early in his career despite having every imaginable advantage, other than a keen intelligence. And look where he ended up! Albeit, one of the most failed presidencies. Now he lives as comfortably as ever off of his personal wealth and his presidential pension, about 200K a year, and thanks to the Former Presidents Act, a paid support staff, office space, travel funds, etc.

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