Mosaic of portraits of 5 white men of various generations


The myth of meritocracy is one of the longest lasting & most dangerous falsehoods in American life. Even a surface-level engagement w/ the history of this country will demonstrate how absurd it is.

Clint Smith on Twitter

I spent 30 years in the so-called meritocracies of open source and Silicon Valley. When you look around and see almost exclusively white men, your meritocracy is self-evident nonsense. ‪In a structurally racist, sexist, and ableist society, hiring strictly from credentialist pipelines is exclusionary, unethical, and bad for business.‬ Overcoming diversity and inclusion pipeline problems requires adopting structural ideology in education and work. Do more than blame pipelines, and stop propagating deficit ideologies and meritocracy and bootstrap myths. These myths are mental health destroying gaslighting writ large. The meritocracy myths fuels internalized ableism, racism, and sexism.

The research is considered the first evidence linking preteens’ emotional and behavioral outcomes to their belief in meritocracy, the widely held assertion that individual merit is always rewarded.

“Students who are told that things are fair implode pretty quickly in middle school as self-doubt hits them,” he said, “and they begin to blame themselves for problems they can’t control.”

Study: Poor Kids Who Believe in Meritocracy Suffer – The Atlantic

There’s nothing more euphemistic and exploitive in education than the myth of meritocracy.

“There’s nothing more euphemistic and exploitive in education than the myth of meritocracy.” 

Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour. The management scholar Emilio Castilla at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the sociologist Stephen Benard at Indiana University studied attempts to implement meritocratic practices, such as performance-based compensation in private companies. They found that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

This is surprising because impartiality is the core of meritocracy’s moral appeal. The ‘even playing field’ is intended to avoid unfair inequalities based on gender, race and the like. Yet Castilla and Benard found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate. They suggest that this ‘paradox of meritocracy’ occurs because explicitly adopting meritocracy as a value convinces subjects of their own moral bona fides. Satisfied that they are just, they become less inclined to examine their own behaviour for signs of prejudice.

Meritocracy is a false and not very salutary belief. As with any ideology, part of its draw is that it justifies the status quo, explaining why people belong where they happen to be in the social order. It is a well-established psychological principle that people prefer to believe that the world is just.

A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you

In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.

A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you

The findings build upon a body of literature on “system justification”—a social-psychology theory that believes humans tend to defend, bolster, or rationalize the status quo and see overarching social, economic, and political systems as good, fair, and legitimate. System justification is a distinctively American notion, Godfrey said, built on myths used to justify inequities, like “If you just work hard enough you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps … it’s just a matter of motivation and talent and grit.” Yet, as she and her colleagues discovered, these beliefs can be a liability for disadvantaged adolescents once their identity as a member of a marginalized group begins to gel—and once they become keenly aware of how institutional discrimination disadvantages them and their group.

Study: Poor Kids Who Believe in Meritocracy Suffer – The Atlantic

“If you’re [inclined] to believe that … the system is fair, then you’re maybe going to accept stereotypes about you more easily.”

Study: Poor Kids Who Believe in Meritocracy Suffer – The Atlantic

“Meritocracy” was widely adopted as a best practice among open source projects in the founding days of the movement: it appeared to speak to collaboration amongst peers and across organizational boundaries. 20 years later,  we understand that this concept was practiced in a world characterized by both hidden bias and outright abuse. The notion of “meritocracy” can often obscure bias and can help perpetuate a dominant culture. Meritocracy does not consider the reality that tech does not operate on a level playing field.

Words Matter – Moving Beyond “Meritocracy” – Mozilla Stands for Inclusion

White supremacy runs on the staunch denial that white privilege exists, as if the deep inequalities in our world were simply the result of a meritocracy.

White Supremacy Runs on Denying the Existence of White Privilege

When white people think about charity or philanthropy, you consider how you can “help” or “support” others, or “be a good person.” This line of thinking presumes you have amassed your wealth through intelligence and hard work. This is what we call the myth of the meritocracy. Nobody is saying you aren’t smart or hardworking, but have you ever considered why and how white people have amassed exponentially more wealth than people of color? Is it that you are smarter and more hardworking than us, across the board?

Of course not.

You’ve amassed wealth through a system of white supremacy. You have literally made money on the backs of BIPOC. Stolen land. Stolen labor. Stolen ideas. So the notion that you want to “give” or “help” as a way of doing something good is all part of this myth that you earned everything you have through merit.

You did not.

White Women: Everything You Already Know about Your Own Racism and How to Do Better

The world is not a neutral place and meritocracy can actually entrench privilege.

The end of ‘meritocracy’ at Mozilla | Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel

Several signs point towards the potential for positive change. We now have a deeper understanding of bias and the cognitive processes behind it. We have more technology tools to mitigate bias at scale. We have data that show there is both a pipeline problem (e.g. access to Computer Science classes is inversely correlated with underrepresented students of color and low income students in public schools) and a leaky pipeline problem  —  in other words, the myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle barriers and biases that begin with media messages and teacher expectations and progress all the way through hiring biases. However, companies still employ a check the box approach that prioritizes mitigating liability and improving public perception over building an inclusive workforce. Internal policies have been shaped more by lawyers and risk mitigators, focused on avoiding lawsuits and excluding those who truly understand the ways in which companies can build inclusive cultures and processes.

Furthermore, the meritocracy myth continues to persist. Tinkering with systems predicated on this belief is seen as social engineering or “lowering the bar.” Companies blame the pipeline and unconscious bias for lack of diversity without addressing their own internal failures to be inclusive. We find these behaviors racist and sexist.

Defining culture

Though startups are making an effort to implement diversity improvement strategies, the reality is that most are taking limited, potentially harmful actions, including one-off training, blaming the pipeline, using language like “lowering the bar,” and describing the current state of the tech industry as a “meritocracy.” Unfortunately, we have seen tech culture become even more exclusive and less diverse over the last five years.

About Project Include

In computer science classrooms across high schools and universities, minorities are excluded and exit early in the pipeline. Along with the pressure to keep up with our “exceptional” peers, we face the pressure of being a model minority or a success story. Like it or not, being regarded as exceptional is a privilege, not proof of a meritocracy.

Undergraduate computer science education is the most common and traditional way people enter the pipeline, and the concept of exceptionality is baked into students early. In freshman year, the “geniuses” are separated from the proletarians as there is a huge pressure to assert your talents and capabilities. The exceptional students, the ones that have already contributed to open-source projects or won programming contests, emerge as the people everyone else should aspire to be.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating talented programmers, but only privileged men and occasionally people who are seen as model minorities are being recognized. Students are entering the industry with false and dangerous assumptions about gender, race, sexuality, success, and education. These assumptions lead to certain groups being treated as exceptional and others being excluded, and eventually leaving. Rather than focusing on discovering exceptional programmers, there needs to be more initiatives to support gender, racial, and LGBT inclusion in the pipeline.

Exclusion and Exceptionality in the Pipeline by Julia Nguyen | Model View Culture

Unpaid internships lock out millions of talented young people based on class alone. They send the message that work is not labor to be compensated with a living wage, but an act of charity to the powerful, who reward the unpaid worker with “exposure” and “experience”. The promotion of unpaid labor has already eroded opportunity – and quality – in fields like journalism and politics. A false meritocracy breeds mediocrity.

The children of the millennials have been born into a United States of entrenched meritocracy – what Pierre Bourdieu called “the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit”. Success is allegedly based on competition, not background, but one must be prepared to pay to play.

“This reliance on un- or underpaid labor is part of a broader move to a ‘privilege economy’ instead of a merit economy – where who you know and who pays your bills can be far more important than talent,” writes journalist Farai Chideya, noting that this system often locks out minorities.

What they are defending is a system in which wealth is passed off as merit, in which credentials are not earned but bought. Aptitude is a quality measured by how much money you can spend on its continual reassessment.

For lower class parents, admissions is a test failed at birth: An absence of wealth guised as a deficiency of merit. In the middle are the students, stranded players in a rigged game.

Namely, they have raised the price of the credentials needed to participate in the new meritocracy by such dramatic measures that it locks out a large part of the population while sending nearly everyone else into debt.

Young US citizens have inherited an entrenched meritocracy that combines the baby boomers’ emphasis on education with the class rigidity of the WASP aristocracy it allegedly undermined.

In an entrenched meritocracy, those who cannot purchase credentials are not only ineligible for most middle-class jobs, but are informed that their plight is the result of poor “choices”. This ignores that the “choice” of college usually requires walking the road of financial ruin to get the reward – a reward of employment that, in this economy, is illusory.

Credentialism is economic discrimination disguised as opportunity.

The View From Flyover Country

Despite the enduring power of the rugged individual and meritocracy myths, the burden of evidence shows that privilege (race, class, and gender) continues to trump effort and even achievement in the real world: less educated whites earn more than more educated blacks, men earn more than equally educated women, and so forth.

The perils of “Growth Mindset” education: Why we’re trying to fix our kids when we should be fixing the system –

These findings led Castilla to wonder if organizational cultures and practices designed to promote meritocracy actually accomplished the opposite. Could it be that the pursuit of meritocracy somehow triggered bias? Along with his colleague, the Indiana University sociology professor Stephen Bernard, they designed a series of lab experiments to find out. Each experiment had the same outcome. When a company’s core values emphasized meritocratic values, those in managerial positions awarded a larger monetary reward to the male employee than to an equally performing female employee. Castilla and Bernard termed their counter intuitive result “the paradox of meritocracy.”

The paradox of meritocracy builds on other research showing that those who think they are the most objective can actually exhibit the most bias in their evaluations. When people think they are objective and unbiased then they don’t monitor and scrutinize their own behavior. They just assume that they are right and that their assessments are accurate. Yet, studies repeatedly show that stereotypes of all kinds (gender, ethnicity, age, disability etc.) are filters through which we evaluate others, often in ways that advantage dominant groups and disadvantage lower-status groups. For example, studies repeatedly find that the resumes of whites and men are evaluated more positively than are the identical resumes of minorities and women.

This dynamic is precisely why meritocracy can exacerbate inequality—because being committed to meritocratic principles makes people think that they actually are making correct evaluations and behaving fairly. Organizations that emphasize meritocratic ideals serve to reinforce an employee’s belief that they are impartial, which creates the exact conditions under which implicit and explicit biases are unleashed.

The False Promise of Meritocracy – The Atlantic

I am cautious about the quality of growth mindset and grit research as valid, and that caution is grounded in the first level-both concepts fit well into American myths about rugged individualism and the Puritan work ethic; thus, even so-called dispassionate researchers are apt to see no reason to challenge the studies (although some have begun to unpack and question Angela Duckworth’s studies on grit).

Scarcity, mentioned about, is a compilation of powerful studies that make a case unlike what most Americans believe about success and failure: those living in scarcity struggle because of the scarcity (think poverty), and those living in slack are often successful because of the slack. This work has not been embraced or received the celebrity of growth mindset and grit because it works against our narratives.

Privileged researchers blinded by their own belief in American myths as well as trust in their own growth mindset and grit, I fear, are not apt to challenge research that appears even to a scholar to be obvious.

The third level is the most damning since growth mindset and grit speak to and reinforce powerful cultural ideologies and myths about meritocracies and individual character-ones that are contradicted by the evidence; and thus, growth mindset and grit contribute to lazy and biased thinking and assumptions about marginalized groups who suffer currently under great inequities.

K-12 applications of growth mindset and grit have disproportionately targeted racial minorities and impoverished students, reinforcing that most of the struggles within these groups academically are attributable to deficits in those students, deficits linked to race and social class.

Rejecting Growth Mindset and Grit at Three Levels | radical eyes for equity

I am tired of the academic affirmative action which has made it not just so that white people are overrepresented at elite colleges (and in professorships), but that their “white racial privilege” at these colleges, where black students are nearly invisible, means that they are more overrepresented now than they were in 1994.

I am tired of the affirmative action for white students at Ivy League universities, where the percentage of students admitted via “legacy admissions” (simply because their parents or ancestors went there) at schools like Harvard is higher than the total percentage of black students.

I am tired of the white affirmative action which means that if a black student can get into college, their job prospects are about as good as those of a white high school dropout. Now that‘s affirmative action! Similarly, a white high school graduate benefits from affirmative action when he has the same job prospects as a black male college graduate, simply by virtue of having been born into a society which raced them as white.

I am tired of the fact that only 13 percent of journalism jobs go to non-white people because of the enduring white affirmative action of the American media.

I am tired of the racist and gendered affirmative action in American society which means that black women nationally earn only 67 cents for every dollar a white man earns. And I am sick of these affirmative action-beneficiary white men deriding black women as “welfare queens,” when black women work more for less than anyone else in the nation and when they showed up in the past two election cycles more than any other race/gender subgroup.

What Jeff Sessions Will Never Understand About Affirmative Action
How Science Pretends to be Meritocratic | A Dr. Fatima Video Essay

And maybe from what I’ve already said you’ve started to get that sense that perhaps the decisions that determine who becomes a scientist and who doesn’t aren’t as based in objective differences in ability as we sometimes think they are.

And you’d be right. Lots of people much smarter than I am have already debunked the myth of meritocracy, in science and the world more broadly.

The other lesson is that, despite what some people really want to think, scientific institutions are just not meritocratic. They’re just not, I’m sorry, they’re not, we all want them to be, I know we do, but they’re not.

And this is really really important—like, I’ve been in so many conversations where people get stuck on this point of ‘you know, sure we want to make science more inclusive, but how do we do that while maintaining our true meritocracy?’

My dudes you were never meritocratic to begin with!

How Science Pretends to be Meritocratic | A Dr. Fatima Video Essay – YouTube

I am tired of the economic affirmative action in American history which has made it so that white families have 10 times the wealth of Hispanic families and 12 times the wealth of black families. The word “merit” has no place in these matters. Merit has very little to do with the racialized structural poverty in American society. Indeed, anthropological economic research has shown in recent years that, “To a striking extent, your overall life chances can be predicted not just from your parents’ status but also from your great-great-great-grandparents.” Your economic fate can be predicted in a “process [which] can take 10 to 15 generations (300 to 450 years), much longer than most social scientists have estimated in the past.”

What Jeff Sessions Will Never Understand About Affirmative Action

Further reading,