Meritocracy is one of many systems in the United States that is built around maintaining order by prioritizing the appearance that everything is functioning as it should while actively excluding those in marginalized or oppressed groups who are perceived as disrupting societal order. Meritocracy intersects with other American values, particularly individual freedom and whiteness, to create the illusion that people succeed or fail based on their own individual merit and effort. This essay surveys examples of exclusion in higher education to show that the ideals of meritocracy are frequently abandoned in order to preserve the existing order of the institution.
In March 2019, higher education was rocked by an admissions scandal involving dozens of individuals, with particular attention paid to high-profile celebrities such as Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, being accused of using their wealth and privilege to help their children get into elite universities.1 Their actions ranged from paying off tutors to help their children cheat on standardized tests to donating large sums of money to secure fraudulent athletic scholarships for their children.2 Such a scandal would seem to lay bare the absurdity of claims that American society functions as a meritocracy, but the scandal actually reveals how the existing meritocratic order is maintained. According to the logic of the meritocratic system we operate under, since the parents involved in the scandal have demonstrated their merit in other areas of life, their children should benefit from their success, even if they have not demonstrated their own merit in the relevant areas. Order is maintained so long as those perceived as part of the meritocratic class are able to achieve success, even if they, as individuals, have not demonstrated merit. It is this function of meritocracy as a means of maintaining the existing order in society that must be understood if the system is ever going to be successfully changed.
Order is a foundational value in American life, the roots of which are traced by Russell Kirk from the ancient Greeks and Romans through European societies from the Middle Ages to the 18th century and ending in America's colonial experiences.3 While Kirk praises order for the purpose it gives to people's lives by directing their actions toward the improvement of themselves and their communities,4 the improvements promised by order are achieved through the exclusion of the marginalized and oppressed, as evidenced in such events in American history as slavery, Native American genocide and forced relocation, Japanese internment, and violent repression of civil rights movements. Order is still privileged in many areas of modern American life, including the heavy policing of minority neighborhoods,5 the mistreatment of migrants at the southern border of the United States,6 and the privileging of civility in political engagement over substantive, progressive change.7 Order in American society is based on preserving the appearance that everything is functioning as it should, whatever the cost.
Meritocracy intersects with other American values, particularly individual freedom and responsibility, to maintain order through its claims of creating “a social system … in which individuals get ahead and earn rewards in direct proportion to their individual efforts and abilities.”8 By inculcating the belief in Americans from an early age that they will succeed or fail based on their own effort and ability, meritocracy provides order to our lives, and those who benefit from it become ardent defenders of the system.9 Those who rise to high status in society, who C. Wright Mills terms the power elite, are psychologically and socially similar to each other and coordinate to maintain their place in the social hierarchy.10 Efforts to dismantle the existing meritocratic system will have to confront the devotion to the system held by those who have succeeded within it. Meritocracy provides order to the chaos of life by making our life events seem to be within our control and not controlled by complex systems. Seeing the world in any other way is seen as inherently disorderly when individual merit has been so closely tied to what order means.
Order is not just about providing structure to society. Kenneth Burke argues that order is an attempt to address society's failings to live up to its stated values, with a sacrifice being necessary to assuage the guilt that results from that failure.11 In America's meritocratic system, the societal value we have failed to live up to is our claim that everyone is equal, so in order to address the guilt that results from that failure, inequality is refashioned as the sacrifice necessary for a system of equal opportunity.12 Order in society is maintained so that people can be confident in their individual success and construct a society around concentrating the benefits that come from success in as few people as possible while not having to worry about the consequences for those who are not successful. The consequences of the existing order are also not spread evenly throughout society and are mostly borne by people of color and other marginalized and oppressed groups. Meritocracy as a system works to maintain order in this unequal way by reinforcing dominant identities, particularly whiteness.
Meritocracy's reinforcing of whiteness is seen in appeals to a colorblind approach to race as “the best way to treat everyone equally.”13 Rather than addressing the existing marginalization and oppression that prevent success, meritocracy falsely argues that only by ignoring identity can true equality be achieved. The success of individuals from marginalized and oppressed groups is also deployed in support of the system as proof that anyone can succeed rather than seeing these individuals as exceptions.14 Instead of recognizing the extraordinary effort these individuals had to exert to overcome the systemic barriers working against their success, meritocracy uses them to reinforce an inequality that favors whiteness and other dominant identities.
Whiteness holds a central place in American society.15 It maintains its dominance through its dynamic nature, changing as necessary to fit different contexts and situations.16 Whiteness comes to mean different things for different people depending on the context, but what it means for many people of color is terror.17 Beyond overcoming systemic barriers, people of color and other marginalized and oppressed groups are expected to endure the psychological harm that comes from interacting with a system that preaches equality while rewarding only the already privileged and dominant. The intersection of meritocracy and whiteness as a means of maintaining order can be seen clearly in examples from higher education.
Many academic disciplines have been struggling to come to grips with their lack of diversity, and recent research by Paula Chakravartty, Rachel Kuo, Victoria Grubbs, and Charlton McIlwain has shown communication studies to be no different, as evidenced by the underrepresentation of work by scholars of color in major journals and the lack of citation of work by scholars of color that has been published.18 Along with publication and citation, treatment by colleagues reflects this intersection. Michael Jennings and Cleveland Hayes relate experiences of being judged by their fellow faculty members for their efforts at addressing systemic oppression and achieving social justice according to the stereotype of the angry black man rather than according to their scholarly and pedagogical merit.19 Treatment of scholars at academic conferences also reflects this intersection. For example, Kathleen Wong (Lau) recounts her mistreatment as an attendee at a regional conference: “I am in the hotel restaurant and walking to my table to sit with my colleagues. Although I am dressed in typical professional conventioneer clothing and am wearing a conference name tag, I am grabbed twice by unfamiliar White communication professors who demand that I seat them. One White male professor grabs my upper arm tightly and barks, ‘I said, Clear my table!’”20 A more recent example comes from the 2019 Rhetoric Society of America (RSA) Summer Institute. José Cortez relates on Twitter the experience of waiting in line with a colleague for a reception when a fellow attendee challenges their presence, saying, “why are you two in line? This is for RSA, and you two can't be here for RSA.”21 The attendee relents only when Cortez asserts his status as an assistant professor, something Cortez makes clear that he should not have to do in order to attend a conference without having his presence questioned.
These examples reflect the intersection of meritocracy and whiteness by sending the clear message that people of color do not belong and cannot be included in academic spaces. The presence of people of color is disrupting to the order of the academic space and must be challenged or prevented, regardless of the merit of the individual in terms of their scholarship or pedagogy. Meritocracy is revealed to be a means of maintaining the existing order rather than a system to determine true merit. Failing to publish and cite scholars of color, employing racist stereotypes in order to question a colleague's place in your department, and questioning a scholar's presence at an academic conference are all ways of signaling that anyone who does not fit a narrow definition of worth does not belong.
By setting up the rules for inclusion in such a way that only those who fit within or are similar to the dominant group can be included and then using these similarities as the very definition for merit within the system, the order represented by the system is maintained. Any efforts to change the system or expand the definition of merit are actively resisted by those in the dominant group because such changes potentially reduce their control over the system. These efforts are also seen as throwing the entire system into a state of disorder because the inclusion of anyone who does not fit within a narrow definition of merit—not that the person does not have any merit at all, just that their merit is assessed according to the existing norms as finding value in different forms of expression and labor rather than striving for achievements deemed worthy—means that the entire system is now illegitimate, which calls into question, by association, their own legitimacy. Instead of wrestling with why their own achievements seem so precarious within the current system, those who have benefited tremendously from the narrow definition of merit would rather unquestioningly defend the order created by the existing system.
Change becomes more difficult because of the recalcitrant attitudes of those who have succeeded within the existing system. The control given to those at the top is difficult to give up. Interacting with such systems may also be painful for members of marginalized and oppressed groups, but it is also the only definition of success many of us have known. The challenge for those who want to resist meritocracy is finding ways to articulate a new method of assessing value that goes beyond merely arguing that the existing system has not been inclusive enough. Doing so just reinforces the value of the existing definition and perpetuates the evaluation of merit along the lines of the dominant group.