Meritocracy: An American Myth

statue of liberty

In our last post we looked at the concept of mythology, a set of narratives and ideals that shape and define a culture. One of the prevailing myths of American culture is meritocracy, sometimes referred to as the American Dream. Meritocracy goes something like this:

No matter where you start out, anyone can come to America and make something of themselves. The opportunities are endless! All you need is a vision, a strong work ethic, perseverance, and solid moral character to raise yourself up and improve your socioeconomic status. Like John, who came to America with two dollars in his pocket and the shirt on his back. After learning his trade and saving away his hard-earned income for three decades, he was able to open his own business. Now that business has expanded to several locations across the state. Then John was able to buy his wife that house with the white picket fence she had always dreamed of, and send all four of his kids to college.

Sometimes this story does play out in America. And perhaps it plays out more often in America than in many other countries, where it can be near-impossible to move up to a higher class or caste from the one you were born into.

The problem with the meritocracy myth arises from the exaggerated emphasis the story places on the character, or merit, of the protagonist. If all you need to get ahead in America is a can-do attitude, a willingness to work hard, and integrity, then that means those who remain poor and marginalized only do so because of their own choices. They are poor and marginalized because they are unintelligent, lazy, unambitious, and/or immoral. If they would only take responsibility for themselves and their families, they could work their way out of their condition, like others have done.

Sociologists Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr. call this line of reasoning into question in their article, “The Meritocracy Myth,” (taken from their book of the same name):

“There is a gap between how people think the system works and how the system actually does work. We refer to this gap as “the meritocracy myth,” or the myth that the system distributes resources—especially wealth and income—according to the merit of individuals. We challenge this assertion in two ways. First, we suggest that while merit does indeed affect who ends up with what, the impact of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overestimated by the ideology of the American Dream. Second, we identify a variety of nonmerit factors that suppress, neutralize, or even negate the effects of merit and create barriers to individual mobility.”

According to McNamee and Miller, those “nonmerit” factors include:

  • Amount of inherited wealth
  • Social status
  • Changes in the market
  • Quality and amount of education
  • Geography
  • Discrimination (particularly racial and gender discrimination)

I would argue that except for “changes in the market,” all of these factors are related to each other, and all of them disproportionately “negate the effects of merit” for people of color. We’ve looked at this a little before, when we examined the concepts of white privilege and systemic racism, and we’ll certainly flesh this out more in the future. But in the meantime…

What about you? Do you believe in the American Dream? Do you have story of your own (or from your family) about “making it” in America? Do you find yourself (maybe subconsciously) thinking that those who are able to raise their socioeconomic status in America deserve to, while those who stay poor and marginalized must be lacking in some way? How do you see these ideas intersecting race in America?

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