The Meritocracy Myth

The Meritocracy Myth I’ve been mulling over a few subjects that have been making appearances on my site as of late. The subjects are white privilege and the meritocracy myth a.k.a. “pull yourself up by the bootstraps and inequality vanishes as soon as the laces are tied.”

I’ve written about white privilege and the meritocracy myth before but I feel that I need to add a few more bits of content.

I’d like to thank Dennis at Rhetorical Wasteland for spurring me on to continue to post about the same thing…over and over again.

In addition to D’s encouragement, I received this comment/email today (which actually encouraged me to create this post):

…yes, I am white, and no nothing was given to me. The scholarships I had in college – academic (i.e., merit-based) based, not because they were promised to white people. The grades I earned – because of hard work, not because the professor favored white people. The job I hold now, I earned because of my experience and background, not because I am white.

…And if you do not believe in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, then perhaps you should more attention to the people who have achieved success in this country by their own hard work.

pull yourself up by your bootstraps

In response to that sentiment, I present the following comic, excerpts and links regarding the meritocracy myth…

Bootstraps and the meritocracy myth

From the Meritocracy Myth:

According to the ideology of the American Dream, America is the land of limitless opportunity in which individuals can go as far as their own merit takes them. According to this ideology, you get out of the system what you put into it. Getting ahead is ostensibly based on individual merit, which is generally viewed as a combination of factors including innate abilities, working hard, having the right attitude, and having high moral character and integrity. Americans not only tend to think that is how the system should work, but most Americans also think that is how the system does work (Huber and Form 1973, Kluegel and Smith 1986, Ladd 1994).

In our book The Meritocracy Myth (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), we challenge the validity of these commonly held assertions, by arguing that there is a gap between how people think the system works and how the system actually does work. We refer to this gap as “the meritocracy myth,” or the myth that the system distributes resources—especially wealth and income—according to the merit of individuals. We challenge this assertion in two ways. First, we suggest that while merit does indeed affect who ends up with what, the impact of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overestimated by the ideology of the American Dream. Second, we identify a variety of nonmerit factors that suppress, neutralize, or even negate the effects of merit and create barriers to individual mobility. We summarize these arguments below. First, however, we take a brief look at what is at stake. That is, what is up for grabs in the race to get ahead?


The most obvious and widely recognized nonmerit barrier to achievement is discrimination. Discrimination not only suppresses merit; it is the antithesis of merit. Race and sex discrimination have been the most pervasive forms of discrimination in America. The good news is that such discrimination is declining. The bad news is that these forms of discrimination are down but not out. Besides ongoing discrimination, there are still inertial effects of past discrimination that create disadvantage in the present. The divisive debate over affirmative action in America highlights the continuing disagreements about the size and importance of these residual effects and how to best to address them. (via Sociation Today: The Official Journal of The North Carolina Sociological Association.)

Oh, and I found this over at the Minnesota Law Review:

The Meritocracy Myth and the Illusion of Equal Employment Opportunity

Aggregate workplace data reveals that upward mobility in the United States job market still is largely limited by both a person’s race and sex. White men comprise approximately 43% of the U.S. work force. Yet, 97% of senior managers at Fortune 1000 industrial and Fortune 500 service firms are white, and between 95% and 97% of senior managers of Fortune 1500 firms are male. Moreover, of the 3-5% of senior management positions occupied by women, a mere 5% are held by racial minorities. Despite these facts, the dominant story about employment opportunity in the United States today is that the barriers to progress are gone. Americans believe that employers have dismantled the impediments to workplace opportunity. Jobs are no longer overtly segregated by race or sex, and discrimination, if it exists, is an anomaly.

In this Article, Professor Anne Lawton argues that the meritocracy myth, with its emphasis on individual talent and effort, accounts for this discrepancy between American beliefs about opportunity and the reality of the American workplace. The meritocracy myth is comprised of two interconnected assumptions: (1) employment discrimination is an anomaly; and (2) merit alone determines employment success. Increasingly, these assumptions about employment opportunity and merit are driving federal court decisions in employment discrimination cases. An analysis of recent disparate treatment cases involving challenges to hiring, promotion, or discharge decisions, based on race, sex, race and sex, or retaliation, reveals that many federal courts adhere to a narrow and outmoded conception of discrimination as overt, negative, and conscious bias. Because many federal courts fail to recognize that discrimination now manifests itself in more subtle ways, they often grant summary judgment to employers because plaintiffs have not offered evidence that conforms to the courts’ model of traditional prejudice. By doing so, these courts reflect and reinforce cultural beliefs central to the meritocracy myth and make it increasingly difficult for plaintiffs to prevail on the merits in disparate treatment cases.