I was one of 10 academics asked to opine about meritocracy for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Here is my short piece:
The Price of Merit
If it’s something the rich can purchase, it’s just another obstacle for the rest of us.
By WALTER KIMBROUGH
I attended a magnet high school in Atlanta, at that time one of the highest performing schools in the city. Close to graduation our counselor began to determine class rankings. I knew I was among the top students. I learned, though, that I had been leapfrogged by a classmate whose parents argued for some of their grades to be changed. Another classmate told me about it — her own mom was thinking about pushing for grade changes as well. My parents and I never considered doing something similar. In the end, the counselor decided to have two valedictorians, and I would be the salutatorian.
This was my awakening. Merit can be lobbied for, and in some cases, purchased. And so merit is something I had to overcome.
My high school was 98-percent black, proof that these issues exist in all types of communities. But when race is added as another variable, the myth of merit is further exposed. As a nation we are still coming to terms with a massive college admissions scandal. Wealthy parents purchased access to top universities by manipulating the system, for instance by having someone else take a standardized test on behalf of their child.
Let’s stop discussing merit. It’s a concept that reflects power and privilege, connections and wealth.
For those with power and privilege, lineage guarantees merit.
For people without power or privilege, merit is something that has to be overcome. In many African American households, parents tell their children that they have to be two or three times as good to get the same opportunities. My mom, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who double majored in chemistry and math, didn’t just tell me that; she lived it. My concern is that too many without power or privilege falsely believe that everyone is equal, and merit is applied equally.
The statistics say otherwise. Huge racial gaps exist in terms of quality of K-12 education, graduation rates for both high school and college, and family wealth and income. Even during a period when African American unemployment hovers near record lows, black homeownership is at a record low. Too many in America do all of the right things only to realize that merit alone doesn’t lead to success.
So let’s stop discussing merit. It’s a concept that reflects power and privilege, connections and wealth. For many Americans, success is not achieved on merit, but by overcoming it.
Walter Kimbrough is president of Dillard University.