America is not a meritocracy

Note: I wrote this after an in-class debate over America’s status of being a meritocracy or not. I supported and still do support that America is not a meritocracy, but there are exceptions who make it through their merit, although it seems to be scarce. Be prepared to read this with an open mind and feel free to comment with your insights. This was a graded assignment.

“Equal opportunity” is not enough to label America as a meritocracy and it was the main argument for the yes side of the scholarly discussion. Even though our constitution and our laws state that all people will be treated equal, I do not buy it. Even with the Golden Rule – treat others the way you would like to be treated – we all learn in preschool and up through grade school, it creates an informal version of this equal opportunity way in America to condition us early, people of America have the choice. The choice many have made is to work their selves to death making the grades and GPA in school, get into their college of choice, graduate with honors, make a difference, and then be awarded with the job they have dreamed. This is somewhat the path of my American Dream.

My American Dream before teaching was to go into the journalism and media realm and conquer with my writing and editing skills – the ones I had mastered in college that I paid for through loans while working endlessly on many collegiate media outlets and organizations. My entire focus in college was to build my resume. I did well and my resume was full, but then after the Olympic Gold Medalist Shawn Johnson got a job with CNN simply because of her gift as a gymnast even though she had no schooling after high school, I became even more aware that America is not a meritocracy. I understand talent and knowledge sometimes comes naturally like in gymnastics and Miss Johnson probably did know a lot about judging sports such as hers, but the fact that she did not have to prove herself through journalism classes or a degree that included how to properly interview, quote, and construct a fair and unbiased story really pissed me off.

Another example of this came out of an opinion piece from The New York Times in August of 2009 by Eric Etheridge entitled “There Goes the Meritocracy”. It uses much sarcasm and light humor to address the ridiculousness of how the elite and financially or politically prosperous obtain their professions. Although it is laced with sarcasm, it states facts and instances where America appears to only elect and subject these people to the American Dream. The example they use is Jenna Bush Hager, the daughter of President Bush, and her correspondent job on the Today Show. He cites a Gawker article by Foster Kamer. “Jenna Bush is nice, and fun! And know what? This is actually somewhat likable in its complete and utter boldfaced stunt-casting nature. And while this might not exactly be a ratings boon – at all – educational it shall be: all you aspiring TV anchors, look to the stars! You apparently have a better chance of getting there than on Today.” These are some of the points I wanted to make in the scholarly discussion.

Much of my research I gathered focused on opinion pieces and blog posts relating to how the average American sees him or herself in the real world of American meritocracy. The fact-based research such as the statistics in The Economist article many cited and I read did not hit the stories I wanted to find. I did read many fact-based, journalistic articles though. A Red Room blog post by Michael Forbush called “The Myth of American Meritocracy” allows readers to see America from his perspective and looks at product superiority rather than just people-based meritocracy. He defines meritocracy the way I would, “…how one rises to the top based on one’s merit. This idea fits into the capitalist myth that the best products survive, the best ideas survive and the weaker things fail.” He then lists counterexamples such as Unix, Microsoft Windows, and Apple OS, which opens readers’ eyes to a bigger meritocratic problem than before. “Windows trudges on in this capitalist system regardless of the fact that it is by far the worst of these three operating systems. The real truth is that the product with the most aggressive marketing wins, regardless of whether the marketing is true or false. And, products that have a market presence are more likely to maintain it than an equal, newly introduced product.” His point is “products do not excel merely on their merit and neither do people.”

This brings me to the argument of connections – bluntly, if CEO Daddy can make it happen, it will happen most of the time. America is compared to a pyramid structure in Forbush’s blog post. “If we imagine that those at the top award the vacancies as they appear then they award them to [their] family and friends before they fill them with those who truly merit the positions. Therefore, some of the positions will be awarded by merit, but for the most part family and friends will be rewarded first.” This was brought up in the scholarly discussion with many students citing people such as Paris Hilton, the Kardashians, Donald Trump, and other elite members of American society. The “Yes, America is a meritocracy” side countered again with the opportunity argument that from birth everyone is given the equal opportunity to shoot for their dreams and be able to apply for every position available in the United States and beyond. As we discussed, everyone must hold a social game as well as an achievement game. Some people cannot be president or LeBron James because of lots of reasons. The opportunity argument just makes me want to yell, “But doesn’t majority rule in this country?” If you are the five or whatever percent struggling to make yourself something under the worst circumstances, do you really hold the same chance as the heir to a rich company? No because the majority rule. Whatever the majority wants, it gets.

To touch on a great example of merit because there are many examples of merit that we brought up in class such as Oprah, but The New York Times article brings up a great example in Sonia Sotomayor, a Supreme Court Justice. Here is her merit timeline: “… grew up in a Puerto Rican family in Bronx housing projects; whose father had a third-grade education, did not speak English and died when she was nine; whose mother worked as a telephone operator and a nurse; and who then became valedictorian of her high school, summa cum laude at Princeton, a graduate of Yale Law School, and ultimately a Supreme Court Justice.” Now that is a whole lot of unfairness turned into a lot of deserved merit.

Although I stand by my declaration that America is not a meritocracy, I understand that there are exceptions. But how can America be a meritocracy when it is solely based on exceptions? It cannot. Resumes and merit have a place in America and it should be a bigger one than it is… it should be the majority. Instead the majority find other convenient ways to make it in this country. A main point I have learned is you have a strong social game just as much as you have to have a strong resume to get the job you want. Even then it is a fight to the death of the elite, the heirs, and the people who know the CEO or the public relations director. America should be based the merit of the people and products, but it is not.


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