BY REESE PECOT
On almost the other side of the world, in South Africa, in a small town on the ocean, at the bar in an Irish pub, I recently overheard a young woman make a comment that reminded me of countless remarks made in these United States.
She was plump, perhaps 20 years old, and had just downed her first beer. Setting her glass down, she said: “I’ve put in job applications where I know my qualifications are better than the Blacks, but they get the job. Why should I have to give up a job because of apartheid? I didn’t even know what was going on over there for all those years in the townships. It’s not fair.”
As I listened to her, her use of the word “fair” clashed harshly against the socio-economic realities of the South African landscape. The legacy of apartheid, the systematic residential and economic segregation of non-whites, has scarred the country deeply. Disparities in access to housing, water, electricity and education are so wide that white South Africans, constituting 13 percent of the population, enjoy some of the highest standards of living of any group in the world, while 66 percent of the black population lives below the poverty line.
The disparities are not just limited to statistics on a page; the harsh legacy of apartheid is starkly visible everywhere. One sees this legacy in posh white neighborhoods replete with swimming pools, Mercedes in driveways and fancy homes with elaborate security systems. Meanwhile, miles away, black ghettos and shanty-towns fester without adequate water or electricity. Even for Blacks who don’t live in ghettos, a house meant for one family may hold six or seven in its bedrooms. Black qualifications remain depressed due to years of “Bantu education,” a mandated, inferior curriculum taught to black South Africans.
One likes to think that things aren’t so unequal here in the United States. Here, “only” 28 percent of African-Americans and 29 percent of Hispanics live below the poverty line, as compared to 11 percent of whites. Even if many African-Americans and Latinos still live in ghettos, nearly all, we might boast, have access to water and electricity. In terms of education, critics like Jonathan Kozol may remind us that in low-income areas, predominantly populated by people of color, per-pupil spending may be just one-sixth of the budgets spent in more affluent communities. But this is less insidious than state-ordered inferior education, we might retort. So there – America is very different.
However, listening to this young woman’s words – not just her use of the word “fair,” but her admonition that she personally had little to do with apartheid and her insistence on her own superior merit – made this writer feel like she was right at home. In fact, it might as well have been four years ago, when I sat at a lunch table debating Proposition 209, which eliminated affirmative action in California, with a co-worker. He recounted filling out college applications in his dorm room at the exclusive preparatory school, Exeter Academy: “The whole time, I just felt like, here I was working so hard to get good grades and scores so that I could get into Cal Berkeley, and some black kid from East L.A. who didn’t even do as well as I did could just take it all away.”
I don’t think he ever realized the irony in what he said. I don’t think he realized even when he stepped into the 5-series BMW his father had recently bought him and drove home that evening.
To be fair, there are Hispanic kids whose parents buy them BMWs. There are black kids who grow up with swimming pools in their back yards and go to Exeter Academy. It might, in fact, as some argue, be fairer to recast affirmative action to help economic classes rather than as a race-based initiative. But aside from those points, what makes my former co-worker and the woman from the South African pub alike is their adherence to a mythology firmly embedded into the American ethos – the mythology of meritocracy.
American meritocracy makes some basic and familiar assumptions: Individuals should be judged according to their accomplishments, not their characteristics. Thus, grades and test scores should figure centrally in educational admissions (pretending for a moment that legacy admissions do not exist). Work history and performance should largely determine who gets what job and who gets promoted (ignoring nepotism and ol’ boys clubs). Meritocracy rhetoric allows those admitted into prestigious institutions or who are hired for competitive jobs to pat ourselves on the back and say, “I deserve this!”
But meritocracy rhetoric does more than make us feel good about ourselves; it makes us feel good about American society. When we look at the slum kid who scratches and claws his way up to Harvard University, or the Oprah Winfreys and Bill Clintons of America who overcame poverty, racism and/or both to ascend to positions of power, we say to ourselves: “Ah, with hard work, integrity and smarts, anyone can make it!” The myth of meritocracy sounds like a principle. It comports with the notion of an idyllic system of justice that plays by the rules. It’s rational. Best of all, it’s fair.
Or is it? Our notion of meritocracy has two insidious aspects: First, it erases history and blinds us to the notion that sometimes true justice is collective and not individual. Our South African friend benefited from the effects of apartheid in her own lifetime. Her superior resume directly benefited from racist employment policies. Yet she refuses to see reparatory action as “fair” given her personal merit. Given that a young woman could so easily dismiss the scourge of apartheid only nine years after its end, it’s no surprise that many Americans, often white males like my Exeter friend, see themselves as victims when they are assessed by anything other than their hard earned “merit.”
The second insidious aspect of American meritocracy is that, within the framework, “merit” is often seen as an equal opportunity commodity. We might acknowledge the steep spending differentials experienced by low-income students and those of color. We might even admit that a school campus plagued by violence, or a home life riddled by poverty can affect one’s ability to achieve academically. Yet romantic notions persist. We might remind a young student whose parents cannot pay to keep the lights on that Abraham Lincoln studied by candlelight. Or, we tell ourselves, it’s culture and parenting that provide the linchpin of difference, not per-pupil spending, the ability to pay for a test-prep class or having the means to hire a tutor.
Our notion of meritocracy is not accidental. Our tendency to divorce merit from history, to consider merit individually rather than collectively, to separate it from economic opportunity, and to correlate it with numerical scores has deep roots in American society. Hell, it has deep roots in Harvard University. The Educational Testing Service (that notorious little outfit that brought you the SAT) was developed by a former dean of Harvard, with the university’s president, James Bryant Conan, acting as patron. They had a vision of segregating society along intellectual lines to identify those who should be the leaders of American society. Unfortunate-ly, this vision was devoid of history, discrimination and the effect of inequity on “merit.”
For the sake of that country 10,000 miles away, one hopes its people prove themselves wiser than we have been in their quest to understand and define “merit.”