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The Myth of Meritocracy

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To my high school guidance counselor, I wasn’t college material. I remember flipping through the dusty pages of the massive dictionary in the school library to find the definition of the word meritocracy: “the holding of power by people selected based on their ability.” I needed to understand why she repeated that word to me and some of my classmates to limit our options. I now realize that meritocracy is a myth in the United States used by those in power to excuse their personal failings, while diminishing the ability of others.

My sisters and I were taught that we had to be twice as good as our peers. We had to work twice as hard in school to receive a fraction of the recognition. I learned that lesson early as I was bused to an elementary school in a neighborhood that looked nothing like my own. That lesson was reinforced in fourth grade when I was moved to another school. Being one of few people of color has been a ubiquitous feature of my entire academic experience. While some revel in being the first, I saw it as a hollow prize that was always accompanied by others’ doubts.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean

The minute I was accepted to my top choice school, I knew that was where I was going. I hadn’t set foot on the campus of the University of Virginia (UVA) since a trip in 10th grade for state history day; but I knew I would be a Cavalier. UVA was one of the top public universities in the country and for students in my hometown, UVA and Virginia Tech were viewed as the pinnacle.

One day in math class someone mentioned that she had been rejected by UVA and her parents were livid. Her revelation set off a tidal wave of comments from others who had been rejected and from students who said they didn’t even bother applying because older siblings had been denied admission. One of my dearest friends, or so I thought, shared a conversation his father had at their country club about the unfortunate “shift” in UVA’s student body that made it harder for kids like “theirs” to get in. He felt as an alum who actively donated, tailgated for every home game, and hired interns, that his kid deserved admission. It didn’t matter that my friend didn’t really want to go to the school. It only mattered that his father was planning to speak with some “influential people” when they met up for a round of golf. I and the only other African-American student in the class had an unspoken agreement to sit apart from each other to “spread the melanin.” We continued our tacit covenant that day by just listening as our classmates debated the changes happening at colleges. In the early nineties, colleges and universities around the country were confronting new legal challenges to their admissions process against growing demands to create a more diverse student body. The classmate and I sat on the edge of our cramped chairs waiting in dread for the words we knew would soon tumble from someone’s lips. We knew that they believed the great evil undergirding this change was “affirmative action.”

As the clock ticked toward the end of the period we breathed a short-lived sigh of relief that no one had turned to us for the inevitable “Black perspective.” Just before the bell rang to move us toward the next class, the student sitting to the right of me turned my way and said, “Hey, did you get in?” I looked at the other Black student in the class then quickly darted my eyes away before lowering my head and sheepishly responding, “Yes.” Before I could look up another student loudly proclaimed, “Of course she did. She’s Black!”

The other students — my classmates and so-called friends — nodded their head in agreement. Those nods turned to shakes of disgust once they heard that the other African-American student in the classroom had also been accepted. They didn’t care that she and I had spent the last four months working with a tutor after school to boost our math scores. They didn’t need to know that our parents had scraped together the money for that extra help or that we worked so hard in those sessions because we didn’t want their sacrifice to be wasted. Our classmates didn’t care that we spent our weekends volunteering in the community, competing in scholarship competitions, or participating in Upward Bound. And it certainly didn’t matter to them that two of our beloved math teachers were also alumni who exposed us to a network we never could have imagined. With a singular sentence, our classmates had reduced our entire accomplishment to the singular belief that being Black had somehow gained us an unfair advantage that we didn’t earn based on merit. Meritocracy wasn’t for kids of color or first-generation students. To them, the word meritocracy was used to protect their sense of entitlement.

For a long time we wore the weight of that rejection as if we needed to apologize for our success. That doubt seeped into how we saw ourselves, what we believed we were capable of, and what we thought we deserved. It stimulated an ever present sense of impostor syndrome that made us question every achievement. Even though the Supreme Court had long before struck down quotas, our classmates’ ignorance shaped our sense of worth. It seems silly that the ignorant ramblings of 18 -year-olds would stick with us. But they did. It was a reality in college and in graduate school that led people to justify their own mediocrity by doubting our ability. At every educational milestone I have achieved, whether high school graduation or faculty tenure, there have been people who raise the “race card” to suggest those accolades were given rather than earned. A far more accurate depiction is that for many of us, we have excelled not because of, but in spite of, our identity. Our achievements are an act of resistance against those whose definitions of our ability don’t fit our tongue. In spite of those who falsely believe that wealth is always the result of hard work and that poverty is an indication of a moral failing; we persist.

Meritocracy is a myth with dangerous consequences. While some have expressed shock and outrage over the latest revelation that high profile celebrities bought their way into college, no one I know is surprised. As educators we’ve all experienced over zealous helicopter parents who believe their interventions justify their children’s shortcomings. The problem is that those interventions often fail to acknowledge what is truly in the best interest of their child while denying their own sense of agency. It also reflects the downfall of parenting where our social media-obsessed culture leads many to live through their children, rather than living for them. Another consequence of privilege-based parenting is that it often creates unrealistic expectations for students that morphs into higher rates of anxiety, depression and panic.

The reality is that colleges do engage in affirmative action. It happens when students check a box indicating their legacy status as if their parent’s academic achievement is a guarantor of their own. For many colleges, being degree adjacent is one of the sharpest predictors of admissions success. Affirmative action happens when colleges target particular geographic areas because they know certain zip codes harvest higher income households that can afford big ticket tuitions. Affirmative action happens when colleges with revenue generating athletic programs give special consideration to student-athletes, then limit their ability to reap the benefits of the revenue they helped generate. While I applaud elite schools for providing tuition-free access for moderate-income students, it’s also important to address how that income limits their trajectory to even gain admission because of the pre-college access provided to wealthy families.

The wealthy and the well-connected are often applauded for cultivating the social capital that makes them feel entitled to a seat in a college classroom while students of color and first-generation students are made to feel as if they are an anomaly. It may be surprising to some to read that celebrities paid over $500,000 to defraud prestigious universities into accepting their kids. But the real scandal lies in knowing that while there is little chance the universities will withdraw the students’ diplomas, there are parents across the country who are in jail for trying to send their kids to safer, higher performing public schools.

As the U.S. Supreme Court is now poised to decide the future of diversity programs that enable students of color to get their foot in the door, perhaps it’s time for a broader legal challenge to the lack of equity in educational access. I’d be happy to sign on to that brief.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. Her book, Identity Politics in the United States will be published in September 2019. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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