But by saying meritocracy is a myth, aren’t you implying that I didn’t work hard to get to where I am?
No, not at all.
What I’m saying is that “merit” alone doesn’t fully explain your — or anyone’s — success or failure.
In order for American meritocracy to be true, you’d have to make the assumption that each individual comes into this world tabula rosa, completely detached from not only a personal history but history writ large. You’d have to enter this world naked and screaming in a vacuum with no past and only a wide, blank, future spread before you — where you (singlehandedly, without a $1 million dollar loan from your father *Ahem Donald Trump) make of your life whatever you can imagine (and have no effect on future events).
Except that isn’t what happens. You enter stage left into a story that’s already in progress. And where your character resides in that story depends heavily on all kinds of factors outside of your control that have nothing to do with your merit or personal abilities.
Imagine your position in the world as a seat in an auditorium. The auditorium is infinite with innumerable seats, but there’s only one stage. Obviously, the closer you are to the stage, the better you can see the performance and thus the better your position in life. Additionally, the closer you are to the stage, the less distance there is between you and the very front row. All kinds of factors – like your country of birth, nationality, and even who your parents are and what they’ve done and your grandparents before them – account for where your initial seat is assigned. And what your grandparents or antecedents did or were not able to do is a direct result of history writ large.
If, for example, your grandfather was a WWII veteran then chances are that he and your grandmother were able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill which most likely allowed them to purchase a home, attend school, and join the middle class. This means that your father most likely grew up in a good school district in the newly created suburbs and was able to attend college (where he met your mother), and therefore, by nature of events beyond your control, your seat is closer to the stage.
Let’s take the same scenario of WWII veteran grandpa. Only this time grandpa is black. Black grandpa fought in the exact same war only when he returned to the US, he wasn’t able to take advantage of the G.I. Bill due to racist execution of the law. In fact, he returned to Jim Crow America, where his life was segregated and he couldn’t even vote. No matter how hard he worked, his achievements were limited by a system outside of his control. Thus your father most likely grew up in a segregated neighborhood with fewer resources and a poor public school system and you, in turn, have a seat much farther from the stage.
Declaring America as a meritocracy glosses over the very real facts of history that often impeded the progress of various segments of the American population while directly benefiting others. Citing “merit” is a way to not only oversimplify the path to success (duh..you have not because you ask not), but to pencil whip us into equality despite the glaring inequalities that still exist within America. It’s basically looking at someone else and saying: Look, I did it. What the heck is wrong with you?-without mentioning the fact that your parents paid for your college tuition, your car insurance, and gave you a down payment for your first home as a wedding present.
Again, there a many more contributors to an individuals success (or failure) than just individual ability and talent.
Of course, no one has to stay in the seat into which they were born and that’s where individual talent and hard work can make a difference. But if I am starting in row X and you’re starting in row C, it’s going to take me a lot more to reach your starting position, let alone the front row.