Why meritocracy is America’s most destructive myth

Meritocracy doesn't work when some people benefit from the system disproportionately.

DeRay Mckesson: I wanted to write about what it means that some people seemingly have to “earn” or do something to deserve access to things that we think about as basic necessities. So how hard can you work to earn access to a meal every night, or like what do you have to do to “deserve” a good education? What do you have to do to deserve to have housing? And that’s one of the ways that race sort of works in this country, is that there’s some people that are deemed “inherently worthy.” So we think about the way whiteness works and white supremacy, white people are just deemed worthy of things, but there’s this notion that you need to work extra hard to deserve a great public education. I am from Baltimore and when you think about the school system Baltimore City is not funded equitably at all and it’s like, what do those kids have to do to like earn equitable funding? They actually don’t need to do anything besides just be alive! And one of the things that we need to do is make sure that we set up a system where people just have the basic necessities like food, water, education. We can guarantee that. There’s no reason why we don’t have it. I actually think about the difference between equality and equity. Equality is “everybody gets the same thing,” equity is that “people get what they need and deserve.” And the work of justice, we’re almost always fighting for equity. So we think about things like school funding, we are not asking for equal funding, we know that it just costs more to educate kids who grow up in poverty, it costs more to educate kids with special needs, and we know that we need to pay that cost, that those kids deserve that. We’re not saying that every kid it costs the same to educate every kid, that’s just not true. We want a world of equity where people get what they need and deserve. We know the disparities around criminal justice, that there are disparities around race and we want an equitable system that doesn’t penalize people for where they live, how they show up, what ZIP Code they come from. So the difference between equity and equality is an important distinction, and the only way to get to equality—equality of access, whatever metric of equality you want—is by having equity of resources, equity of experiences, that the equity piece says that “you need something different and you deserve something different, and from a system level I’m going to make sure that you have access to that.” So I was talking to somebody about food stamps once and she was like, “People should have to work for food stamps because if they work for it they’ll have dignity.” Like, not eating, I think, is pretty like—not having food is a lack of dignity right there. Food is one of those basic things— we have enough food that we could feed everybody, we have enough water that everybody can have three meals every single day, like we can guarantee those things, we don’t need to artificially create this “requirement” that people work so they can earn food. Like we can actually guarantee these basic things for people. And one of the things that we have to do as we fight for social justice is talk about these things, as basic as they are. That it’s not radical to believe that we can live in a world that police don’t kill people. It’s not radical to say that every kid should be able to read and write. It’s not radical or extreme to say that we can feed every single person every single day. The only radical thing about it is that we have to say it in the first place! Like that is actually where the radical part comes in. And I think about that because polarization thrives in a world of extremes, and so often people want to paint our positions as extreme. It’s not an extreme position to say that like there should be equity and fairness. And that’s not extreme. The only extreme thing about it is that we don’t have it right now and we have to fight for it. I was in a meeting once and we were talking about welfare and it was people from the Right and the Left. And there was a person in it who was sort of against welfare and her push was like, “People need to earn it, people need to like work hard for it, and if they work hard for it they’ll feel better.” And it’s like… I don’t know, I think that people like have already worked hard to get a meal. I think that people being alive is enough of that, and there’s some people who feel like they just deserve everything. Like one of the ways white supremacy works is that people really do feel like they’ve put in the hard work, they’ve done something, or that all the things that they get are actually the benefits of their hard work. You think about the way wealth works in this country is that in 2053 the median wealth for black people is going to be zero dollars; the lowest recorded wealth since we’ve been recording wealth in this way. And you think of what a median wealth of zero dollars, and you think about white wealth, which is, it will be about $100,000—and the median black wealth will be zero. It’s not like white people worked hard for that. It’s not like every white person was like some entrepreneur that like did all these wealth-building things. The government literally gave white people wealth. The government gave white people housing loans with very little interest; the government gave white people land; the Highway Administration created the suburbs. And you think about what it means that the government gave white people like education en masse. Like those things contributed to white wealth, but there are people that are like, “I worked really hard,” and it’s like, how hard did you work for a system that just benefits your skin color at every turn of the way? You didn’t do that. How hard did you work for every Band-Aid to look like you? How hard you work for “nude”(TM) to be the color of your skin and not mine? Like you didn’t do that, a system did that. And like you benefit from the system and part of the work of white people is to understand the privilege of whiteness and to understand how a system provided that, and work to dismantle it. It actually is dangerous to teach it—so there’s a study that came out that for the first time measures how meritocracy impacts middle schoolers, and it’s seventh grade kids. And it shows that kids actually kids of color do worse later if they believe that meritocracy is like a real thing, because the system starts to bear down on them often in hard ways, and they think that it’s a result of “I’m just not working hard,” and it’s like no, we know that the way systemic racism shows up later means that no matter how gifted you are, how great you are, the outcomes still just aren’t the same. We know with criminal justice—you think about New York City—that 90 percent of the people arrested for marijuana are black and brown. You and I both know, that 90 percent of the people in New York City smoking weed are not black or brown! When we think about the arrests, we think about disparities in education, the meritocracy sometimes causes people to blame themselves for outcomes and not realizing the system is almost guaranteeing a set of outcomes.

  • When fighting for social justice, there is a difference between equality and equity.
  • It's not radical to fight for a world where everyone has the same access to education, has food, and is equal in the eyes of the criminal justice system.
  • There is no real meritocracy if some people disproportionately benefit from the system just because of their skin color.

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