The issue of meritocracy has plagued the Democratic primary this cycle. Pete Buttigieg has been covered as a wunderkind prodigy, evidenced by his Ivy League education, Rhodes scholarship, and knowledge of multiple languages. Meanwhile candidates like Julián Castro and Cory Booker share similar educational pedigrees, achievements, and linguistic talents but have been ignored. Millionaire candidates have been able to purchase their way into debates, while candidates of color have been unable to self-fund their campaigns. After presidential hopeful Kamala Harris dropped out of the Democratic primary race, the December debate will feature a nearly all-white lineup, with the exception of Andrew Yang.
Many see this as a natural weeding out of unpopular candidates or ideas that failed to gain traction among the electorate. They see our democracy is a meritocracy. That is, a system that allows for the hardest working, best skilled, or most deserving — those with the most merit — to naturally take their place in the upper echelons of our society. They are deserving of their positions of leadership, authority, or salaries because they competed with and bested less-deserving applicants or competitors.
The issue with meritocracy as a central organizing principle of society is that it doesn’t exist. In many ways, it is a trope that transforms white mediocrity into excellence. As a policy foundation, it perpetuates and sustains exclusive systems of power that claim no negative collective effects other than distributing rewards to “deserving” individuals. It is a revision of early 20th century social Darwinism that claimed “survival of the fittest.”
For our nation, it is a troubling trope, a mirage that projects the specter of a future that is continually out of reach to historically excluded groups.
Meritocracy often focuses on educational achievement. Although nearly every candidate has an Ivy League education, pundits have highlighted Buttigieg’s educational accomplishments. This has led Michael Harriot to refer to Buttigieg as a “lying MF,” when Buttigieg stated in the past that black students fail to achieve educationally because they lacked role models or they didn’t want it bad enough. Harriot explained that he didn’t make it to college on his own merits, nor did the people in his neighborhood drop out of school because a lack of their merits.
For Harriot and others, it is not about merit but money, not just individual achievement but structural outcomes. He doesn’t deny that Buttigieg is smart and that he worked hard. But he also points out that Mayor Pete did not have to contend with the same issues that plagued him and his community like inadequate and non-existing infrastructure, high levels of under- and unemployment, low wages, and underfunded and segregated schools. Like Harriot, Castro also attended segregated schools with low graduation rates and low levels of college attendance. In his memoir, he even tells a story of an admission counselor who discouraged him from applying to top tier colleges like Stanford, which is where he attended.
Castro and Buttigieg’s success stories show how inequality is disguised under meritocracy and hides structural exclusion and privileges.
In five Ivy League schools, more students came from the top 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent. Nearly 1 in 4 of the richest students attend an elite college, while less than .5 percent of children from the bottom fifth of families do. Not all these students get in on their own merits, as the college admittance scandal of this year made clear. Wealthy parents like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin bribed their children into selective schools, spending anywhere from $200,000 to $6.5 million. While celebrities like Huffman may be outliers, wealthy parents pay large sums of money every year to provide their children with academic tutors, personal coaches, and admissions advisors. Yet, college admission and the opportunities provided by education are often understood as meritocratic.
Moreover, the idea of meritocracy creates a way of viewing the world that divides humans into select categories of deserving and undeserving. Paul Ryan once described this division as “makers” and “takers.” At its root, it accepts various forms of inequality as inevitable and natural. It places the onus of responsibility on the groups most marginalized and excluded by institutions to work to gain entrance to and acceptance in places that were never meant for them. No matter how few succeed and how many fail, the statistical deviation and outliers all serve as evidence that the system of meritocracy works.
Meritocracy fails to give communities of color the comforts and privileges of mediocrity. Often it denies the poor and people of color the ability to be free from systems of surveillance, structures of policing, or measurements of worth. They constantly have to justify why they should have a place at the table or a roof over their head. They must be exceptional in order to deserve the most basic. DREAMers are an example of this. They must be valedictorians, medical students, or lawyers with the potential to transform the nation. They must be outliers in a way that nearly no other fellow citizen is asked to be.
The social sifting that organizes meritocracy is utterly devoid of grace. Something central to faith is the idea that none of us are worthy and all of us fall short, but we are loved and forgiven nonetheless. Our shortcomings and all of our demerits call us to compassion because just as we are not left out, we should not stand for the exclusion of others.