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The Myth of Meritocracy

by Amanda Bonesteel 3 months ago in opinion

An American Lie

The writings of Jo Littler from the book “Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power, and Myths of Mobility” will be discussed in terms of how the myth of meritocracy has been incorporated into American society and how this insidious myth conceals and rationalizes inequality in the United States. Several key aspects of meritocracy will be investigated.

Meritocracy, Intelligence, and Education

Of the five problems with meritocracy, Littler explains that the second issue is that it assumes innate attributes of intelligence and aptitude (Littler, 2018). By assuming that these traits are inherent, meritocracy leaves little room for individuals who may be considered inept or unintelligent to improve their station in life or move up the ladder. We see standardized testing in schools, IQ tests, and so forth without taking into account the social or social-psychological factors that affect a person’s intelligence, test-taking ability, etc. By taking this stance, meritocracy views intelligence as linear and inborn and rationalizes it by using terms such as “gifted” to children who seem exceptionally above their peers in terms of intellect. However, it does not account for different types of intelligence, that people can change their intelligence, or that certain factors- especially socioeconomic status- play a major role in determining this narrow view of intelligence.

Littler elaborates on the subject of American education and references Hannah Arendt’s essay, “The Crisis in Education” which addressed the falling educational standards in the United States (Littler, 2018, pg. 37-38). Arendt talks about the social aspects of American education, authority, and “ability”, and how the utilization of terms such as “gifted” or choosing only small numbers of students who have the “ability” to enter grammar school is detrimental and contradicts equality. Whilst Arendt may be speaking of England, we can just as easily see this same notion in the U.S.

When we look at how the American education system is supposed to promise equal learning and educational opportunities to succeed, one can quickly deduce that this is not the reality. Wealthy neighborhoods have better schools, wealthy parents spend more quality time with their children in terms of reading books or engaging socially, and students from wealthy families have access to better colleges. Dasgupta highlights many of these failings in the chapter “Education: The Great equalizer?” when she talks about family income inequality and geographic location (Dasgupta, 2015). Families from low socioeconomic backgrounds have less of almost everything that matters when it comes to education- less time to spend with their children, less money for books or supplemental educational resources (i.e. tutoring) or recreation, and their children attend poor schools due to their geographic locations in poor neighborhoods. When a child from this background is of college age, they are now woefully behind their wealthy peers. Combined with the rising cost of college, the financial need to go directly into the workforce, and other factors, it’s small wonder that when we look closely at education we can see that it is not the “great equalizer” it is touted to be.

Climbing the Ladder

Another problem with meritocracy is its propensity for implying that anyone who works hard enough can have upward social mobility. It fails to recognize or address that some people have a more difficult time “climbing the ladder” (Littler, 2018). A person born into a wealthy family already has a head start up the ladder (not to mention a safety net at the bottom) while a person born into poverty is disadvantaged from the start. The same can be said of race, immigration status, social status, physical ability, mental health, and so on and so forth. In a neoliberal economy, rising the ranks or increasing status means increasing one’s financial worth and consumer power, and great emphasis is placed on individual hard work and merit.

The narrative that anyone who works hard can get what they want falls apart when we realize that even if the playing field is truly “level”, the players themselves still have different advantages or disadvantages and the competition is hardly fair. An example is that of a child born into a low socioeconomic status with a minor physical disability. Poor people frequently receive poor medical care, less effective treatment, and have worse outcomes. This child’s family likely works and has less time to spend with the child for therapy or even access to a high-quality doctor in terms of locations and transportation. Now, if a child of a wealthy family is born with that same disability, the child has a better chance at having high-quality care, a good outcome, financial support, a financial safety net, more time spent with family, etc. These children did not start as “equals”, as one has the obvious advantage right out of the gate. As is stated in chapter two of the Littler book, “putting a competitive vision of meritocracy into play is not hugely conspicuous or controversial at a time when there is a strong social safety net” (Littler, 2018, pg. 40). The person who will see meritocracy in a positive light is the one who starts with the advantage.

Ironically, because the ideas and legitimization of meritocracy have been embedded in American society, there is an inherent belief that it is right and just and explains away inequality, which in turn leaves inequalities unaddressed (Mijs, 2019). The American cultural ideal, or the American Dream, perpetuates meritocracy even as does the neoliberal agenda. By combing the two we have the narrative reinforced with such gusto that even those who are disadvantaged and at the bottom of the ladder with the rungs few and far between rationalize their own position. In Mijs article, The paradox of inequality: income inequality and belief in meritocracy go hand in hand”, in the Socio-Economic Review, it is stated that: “Research indeed suggests that the public increasingly blames the poor for their misfortune and praises the successes of the ‘meritocratic’ rich” (MacLeod et al., 1999; Weaver et al., 1995; Hills, 2005), (Mijs, 2019).


Meritocracy is very much set in the realm of the white, the male, and middle-class narrative. Littler states that “meritocracy needs to be understood as an ideological discourse, as a system of beliefs which constitute a general worldview and uphold particular power dynamics” (Littler, 2018, pg. 9). Examining the cultural, social relationships, and power dynamics in America gives us a big-picture view of how meritocracy looks in the U.S. and how neoliberalism has continued and empowered that narrative. The problem with this narrative is highlighted in the interaction between the famous actor, Matt Damon, and an award-winning producer, Effie Brown- who is, notably, a black woman. Brown attempts to get the judges (who are predominantly white men) to reflect on their choice of who should win in terms of the storyline and racial profiling. She gently prompts them to “be reflexive about both the racialized dynamics of the script and its production crew” (Littler, 2018, pg. 147). However, she is interrupted multiple times and talked over by Matt Damon. A white man, “explaining” diversity to a black woman while also implying that diversity in film doesn’t even matter. Whatever we want to call it- mansplaining, whitesplaining, Damonsplaining- it showcases the privilege of the white and the male in the U.S. A white, socially relevant, and powerful male assumes he has the authority to minimize others, specifically women and people of color.

Merit being racialized has always been a problem in the U.S. A look back in history in the 1920s and what was dubbed the “Jewish problem” after Charles William Elliot opened up more testing sites and removed the part in Greek in testing for entrance to Harvard, resulting in more Catholics and Jewish applicants (Littler, 2018). The result was that those who felt that their privilege was disappearing was that a new Harvard president started requiring photos and reformed testing to weed out Jewish applicants. Latinx undocumented immigrants in the U.S., are treated as if they don’t have worth and are “disposable” (Alex, 2020). Undocumented immigrants are often called “aliens”, “illegals”, and other dehumanizing, derogatory terms to delegitimize them as human, or rationalize that they are not worthy of the American Dream. They are not “us”, they are “them”. Even legal immigrants are often disparaged and discriminated against…unless they are white and have money.

Even though meritocracy posits itself as an equalizing ideology, it is geared to that of the white, middle-upper-class male. There are numerous examples of how meritocracy favors males in the U.S., and how culturally white male privilege is historically the social norm. As in the instance of Matt Damon interrupting and “mansplaining” diversity to a black woman, many- if not most- women in the U.S. have experienced this phenomenon. Also known as a micro-aggression, mansplaining is the epitome of white, male privilege in that it is a “gesture of silencing” and can be seen as “trying to shut women up” (Littler, 2018). Such instances, when experienced constantly, seen constantly in popular culture or the workplace, prevent women from speaking out or speaking up, assure that they are not taken seriously, or that women are seen as inferior. Historical gender roles have embedded the idea that men are superior, more intelligent, and more powerful than women on multiple levels. We can look back in time at the meek 1950’s housewife and the sexist ads of the time showing husbands with their wives bent over their laps to be spanked because they didn’t cook dinner or clean the house. In today’s society, even while women are supposedly equal to men and “should” have equal opportunity to climb the social ladder, they are still constantly at a disadvantage: lower pay, they are assumed to be the child-rearing partner, sexually discriminated against and harassed, and frequently disparaged by men when they speak up about these inequalities (i.e. angry feminists). Not only are these issues ingrained and reinforced in our American culture every day through ads, film, religion, etc., but there is a common misperception that because women do now have more power in society that sexism isn’t a problem anymore.

In “Gender and the Profession: The No-Problem Problem” by Deborah L. Rhode tells us:

“Women's increasing representation and visibility in the profession is taken as evidence that "the woman problem" has been solved. A widespread assumption is that barriers have been coming down, women have been moving up, and it is only a matter of time before full equality becomes an accomplished fact. In a recent survey by the ABA Journal, only a quarter of female lawyers and three percent of male lawyers thought that prospects for advancement were greater for men than for women. Common assumptions among male attorneys in gender bias surveys are that "time [will] take care of the problem"; if women will just "concentrate on the job and get the chip off their shoulders ... they should do fine in today's society"; and "[of all the problems we have as lawyers... discrimination is low on the list of important ones" (Rhode, 2002).

Rhode goes on to tell us that it is not only men who share this perception, but women as well. Discrimination is downplayed as unimportant and yet while the majority of law school applicants are female, only 15% of federal judges are women (Rhode, 2002). So when it comes down to it, we can see that meritocracy certainly isn’t equal opportunity for both sexes.


In conclusion, Littler gives us many examples of how meritocracy isn’t the great equalizer that we believe it to be in society. Equality based on merit assumes that everyone starts on equal footing, and is given the same opportunities and tools with which to succeed. In American society we can easily expose the myth that meritocracy is built upon by looking at who has power and privilege, debunking rationalizations, and delving into how inequalities and false narratives realistically affect one’s ability to rise to the top. The insidious and perpetual ideal of “The American Dream” and the belief in meritocracy combined with neoliberal ideals do not allow for inequalities to truly be addressed for what they are and how they come to be.


Alex, S. (2020). Undocumented Latinx life-writing: refusing worth and meritocracy. Prose Studies, 108-128.

Dasgupta, K. (2015). Introducing Social Stratification: The Causes and Consequences of Inequality. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Littler, J. (2018). Against Meritocracy: Culture, Power, and Myths of Mobility. New York: Routledge.

Mijs, J. J. (2019). The paradox of inequality: income inequality and belief in meritocracy go hand in hand. Socio-Economic Review.

Rhode, D. L. (2002). Gender and the Profession: the No-Problem Problem. The Hofstra Law Review.


Amanda Bonesteel

Full-time college student. National and International volunteer. Researcher. Backpacker. Former wildland firefighter, AmeriCorps crew leader, and restaurant manager.

But importantly....avid science-fantasy enthusiast!

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