Equality of Opportunity: We Are Not a Meritocracy

Right now, my life is in boxes in my living room. In just under a month, my dad and I will load up a UHaul cargo van with the furniture I’m unwilling to part with and we’ll begin the 10 hour drive back to South Dakota, where I will be taking up and rearranging in a new space in my parents’ basement. I am becoming the cliché.

At 27, this isn’t exactly where I pictured my life, though it depends on age you examined looking forward. At 13, I would have told you that I would be a famous writer living somewhere exotic, like New Zealand or Australia. At 17, I would have told you that I would be the next Tucker Carlson (that was in the heydays of Crossfire on CNN). At 20, I would have told you married, settled down somewhere, working from home (I never pictured a stay at home mom gig) while my husband took care of the kids. At 24, the dreams became fuzzy. All I knew was I wanted to write and I didn’t care – still really don’t – what form that took.

Adulthood is a strange thing. Growing up, you think your parents have all the answers. I remember watching commercials for MCI (remember them?), wondering at all the choices adults made in their daily lives, and what would happen if you made the wrong choice (that, my friends, probably explains a large chunk of my anxiety issues). But the thing I’ve learned time and again in growing up and in learning how to Be An Adult, it’s that I own myself, and I am responsible for myself, but my responsibility does not negate being able to ask for help.

I think this is where particular American ingenuity and stick-to-it-ive-ness gets confused with bootstrap ideology and “no one ever had to help me so everyone else should fend for themselves” narratives. This is the hallmark of privilege, in a way: thinking that everything you did, you did yourself. Failing to factor in the numbers of people who helped you along the way and who are still there for you now. This thinking that your merit is all that’s required to succeed. This is the thinking of the Elites that Chris Hayes calls out in his first book, The Twilight of the Elites, saying,

At its most basic, the logic of 'meritocracy' is ironclad: putting the most qualified, best equipped people into the positions of greatest responsibility and import...But my central contention is that our near-religious fidelity to the meritocratic model comes with huge costs. We overestimate the advantages of meritocracy and underappreciate its costs, because we don't think hard enough about the consequences of the inequality it produces. As Americans, we take it as a given that unequal levels of achievement are natural, even desirable. Sociologist Jermole Karabel, whose work looks at elite formation, once said he 'didnt think any advanced democracy is as obsessed with equality of opportunity or as relatively unconcerned with equality of condition' as the United States. This is our central problem. And my proposed solution for correcting the excesses of our extreme version of meritocracy is quite simple: make America more equal.

This is something I’ve turned over in my head every day this past week as I placed my books and DVDs in boxes and taped them up, readying them for a move. I am lucky, to be where I am. And my luck is due primarily to circumstances of my birth, to the fact that both my parents are alive, that they have room in their three bedroom house to take me in, that I have the cash in savings to make this move across four states, that my whiteness gives me unacknowledged advantages in the job market. There are others not as lucky as I. There are others not as privileged as I.

America is not a meritocracy, as hard as we may try to be. There are inequalities of both opportunity and outcome that plague our nation, and yet, we are still mired in arguments about whether or not talking about race is racist (spoiler: it’s not). When President Obama spoke eloquently and openly about the fact that America is not post-racial, that it is still a system mired in racism, the immediate responses of him being “Racist in Chief” show us just how far we have to go.

Until we can admit that our own experiences of the world, the view we see when we look out our own eyes, is not the same view as that of the person sitting next to us, we will never be able to move forward as a nation, as a church, as a people.

So I tape up another box, aware that I am returning to a state that has issues with this very problem – a state that has abandoned its Native people, that would rather ignore them than actually have hard conversations about race and the sins of the State in perpetuating racist treatment. And I hope to God that small, individual recognition of privilege, moving through our everyday lives, can spur this conversation on and eventually change systems of injustice and make this world better.