We can’t have a meritocracy until we stop believing that some people are just inherently better than others.

By our own bootstraps? We like to think so. Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

With gestures like Women’s History Month and Black History Month, the Google Doodle, and the New York Times’ “Overlooked No More” series of retrospective obituaries, to name just a few, Americans embrace the practice of looking backward and celebrating people who made it against the odds. So what else is new? This has been a major theme of the American narrative since Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography made the “rags to riches” trope our favorite national myth. It’s not much of a leap to go from recognizing a living Horatio Alger type to retrospectively lauding someone whose native conditions of gender, race, and/or class weighed against their ever being successful by popular standards, let alone being recognized for success.

It’s not that I think we shouldn’t recognize, celebrate, and more importantly, incorporate into our regular telling of history the stories of women, people of color, and people marginalized in a number of other ways; it’s that doing so using the language of exceptionalism reinforces the notion that the person we’re talking about was not normal, not like all of the others of their “kind,” whatever we perceive that to be. It’s a tricky task: speaking of a successful person, we tend to emphasize the ways in which that person differs from the less-successful people around them, but if we wish to acknowledge the full humanity of people whose humanity was not acknowledged in the past by the ruling powers, defining them as exceptional is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they were exceptional, insofar as they overcame the odds to succeed where others “like them” did not. On the other, emphasizing the extraordinariness of such individuals does little to challenge stereotypes and uproot prejudices regarding groups of people who have been, rightly or not, grouped together. As Frederick Douglass penned his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Written by Himself, he must have been acutely aware of the narrow line he was walking in so compellingly telling the story of his astonishing rise from slavery to freedom while making the point that all of his fellow slaves deserved their freedom, too, even though they hadn’t, as he had, freed themselves. Exceptional as he was in so many ways, his extraordinariness was not what argued for his freedom: his humanity was. Yet Americans still persist in celebrating the “self-made,” the “self-reliant,” and the superlative, largely failing to acknowledge the networks of support and privilege that boost most of the “winners” above the rest, and failing to look into the backgrounds of the less-privileged “winners” and understand that such people have “made it” despite significant prejudice, not because they were somehow intrinsically superior to their peers.

When I look at the New York Times’ daily emails, which include a sampling of current obituaries along with, some days, the “Overlooked,” I see, still, that most of the deaths deemed significant enough to include in the newsletter are the deaths of men. In the end, simply incorporating the “overlooked” into the existing narrative does not change the assumptions of the narrative itself. And it’s that narrative and the assumptions that generate it that are the problem.

The recent (March 2019) scandal concerning rich people’s practice of cheating to get their kids into elite universities serves as one example (there are countless others) of how this conjoined narrative of exceptionalism and the American meritocracy frames the mainstream perception of an individual’s value in the U. S (this article for a quick update on the scandal). After nearly two hundred years of telling ourselves that personal strength, persistence, determination, originality, and brilliance are the engines of success, and after at least that long of telling ourselves that financial net worth is an infallible measure of success and moral worth (to the extent that some Christians — see here — have embraced prosperity’s seal of moral approval, Jesus’ admonition that a camel can sooner thread itself through a needle’s eye than a rich man enter heaven notwithstanding — Mark 10:25), we have come to defend the mechanism of meritocracy with a vehemence tantamount to rage, even now that it is clear that it is at odds with another of the (supposedly) favored tropes of the republic: the promise of equality for all. If meritocracy is to be a defensible mechanism and measure of achievement, equality has to exist beforehand. If there is, as there is and has been in the U.S. from the start, systemic exclusion (by law or by practice) of any group of people from full rights and benefits of citizenship, then to say that everyone has equal opportunity and will be rewarded according to their own merit is a sham.

And so, in the already-launched 2020 Presidential race, we who wish for change must make it happen by casting our votes for change. If we deplore the racism, sexism, and classism we now witness all around us, we must cast our votes for candidates who are part of the demographics at a disadvantage because of their race and/or gender and/or class, who have climbed as far as they have up the ladder of candidacy for public service without the “original privilege” of being white, male, and wealthy. Alarmingly, the persistence of the idea that everyone in America deserves what they’ve got threatens to lull us into believing that those who win do so because they are better human beings, while those who lose are intrinsically losers. It will not do to cling to the idea that the supposed meritocracy itself will sort things out and confer the presidency in 2020 on “the best person for the job,” especially when a huge part of the job that needs doing involves full-time commitment to the pursuit of equality for all. Our meritocracy is built on an unfinished foundation. The heavy lifting lies ahead, one vote at a time.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.