Racial Inequality and “Meritocracy”: A Closer Look

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting the nation’s only black four- star general , William E. Ward. His forty year career spanned work in the Middle East, Africa where he was the first head of the U.S. Africa Command, Deputy Commander of the European Command, a stint with the 82nd Airborne, action in Somalia and Bosnia and numerous other assignments. He is a charming, personable man who will be retiring this May. His successes over decades of service to this nation give credence to the belief that hard work can lead to good outcomes and triumph over racism.

I would not want readers to misconstrue the tenor of my previous blogs. I do believe in the virtue of industriousness and the rewards of hard work and individual initiative. I grew up in this society and learned these values as other kids do through our education system. While these virtues often help some people to achieve success and gain recognition, (they certainly help perpetuate the existing social system), they do not guarantee everyone equal outcomes. For example, today’s military is thought to offer people of color access to upward mobility, but African Americans are still underrepresented in the highest ranks. While blacks comprise about 17 percent of the military, they account for only 9 percent of the officers. Only 5.6 percent of the 923 general officers and admirals were black as of May, 2008. Just ten African American men have ever attained four-star rank, five in the Army, four in the Air Force, and one in the Navy.

The highest echelons of the private sector are even more segregated. As of February, 2010, there were only nine African-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. A Wall Street Journal analysisin 2008 found only a tenth of the CEOs of the largest corporations in the United States were racial and ethnic minorities, and their percentage on boards of directors was small and virtually unchanged since 2000. In fact, the percentage of companies in the Standard and Poor’s 500-stock index with no minority directors increased from 36 to 41 percent between 2000 and 2007. (Women don’t fare much better in this white man’s world, with only 25 heading Fortune 1,000 companies in 2007.)

Although over 600 cities today have African American mayors compared to virtually none in the ‘60s (clearly a sign of political progress and demographic trends in the nation’s metropolitan areas), there are no African American members in the U.S. Senate, one black governor (Deval Patrick of Massachusetts), and only two African Americans have ever served on the U.S. Supreme Court. But hope springs eternal—I never thought I’d see a man of color in the White House, or, for that matter, a person of color as the head of the Joints Chiefs of Staff or Secretary of State. (The latter under Republican conservative President George Bush.)

While remarkable changes have occurred in race relations in this country over the last several decades, giving some people of color access to better lives and others (whites included) hope in the future, the fact remains that disparities between whites and people of color exist in important areas:

1. In educational attainment, as measured by graduation rates and standardized test scores in math, reading and science, blacks and Latinos are 30 percent lower than whites, and a disproportionate number of children of color are suspended and expelled and relegated to special education programs.
2. In health, measured in longevity, black life expectancy is as much as eight years less than whites; infant and maternal mortality nearly double that of whites; and blacks and Latinos have lower rates of health insurance coverage than whites
3. In criminal justice, measured in the disproportionate number of people of color incarcerated and the disparities in sentences they receive compared to whites for the same or similar offenses.
4. The net worth of whites is eight to ten times more than blacks. Three times as many blacks as whites live below 125 percent of the poverty level, and black median household income is only 65 percent that of whites.

These disparities have not changed significantly in decades. The gap between whites and blacks and Latinos has even been widening since the onset of the Great Recession. Unemployment among African Americans has been twice as high as whites and 50 percent higher for Latinos than whites.

We are raised believing in the notion of a meritocracy—that one can become successful by embracing the concept. The assumption in this proposition is that of a level playing field where we all have equal opportunities to develop our abilities and potential. Conversely, if someone or group fails in the game of life in America, then that is because of some personal defect of character or even biology. We have seen this theme repeated in attempts of the wealthy and their apologists in the Academy to link intelligence to success and superior genetic endowment. It is a recurrent theme used to blame the victims of systemic, institutionalized racism, sexism, abelism, homophobia and all other forms of discrimination used to marginalize people who have been systematically prevented from participating fully in this society.

While it may be comforting and convenient to believe that only the most highly qualified people are recruited to occupy the upper echelons of the organizations which run our society (and indeed the world’s), it is far too simplistic to assume that the centuries of human pain, suffering and failure experienced by marginalized groups rests solely on their purported social, psychological and physiological imperfections. Certainly, marginalized people have made political and economic advances. They must continue to believe that there is hope for more, but we all must recognize the limitations imposed on people by institutions that are dominated by a white male minority who continue to resist significant changes in their use and abuse of power. I believe in this country and the concept of a meritocracy, but I am also aware of the balance of power and political realities that limit people who have not had the opportunities which prepared them to assume the roles of political and corporate leadership. By analyzing and exposing the weaknesses in our system, it is my hope that we will be able to fulfill the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

For more information on these points see:
1. Joe R. Feagin, Racist America. Second edition. N.Y.: Routledge, 2010.

2. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man. N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

3. H. Roy Kaplan, The Myth of Post-Racial America. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2011.

4. Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller, Jr., The Meritocracy Myth. Second edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.

H. Roy Kaplan, Ph.D.
Research Associate Professor, Department of Africana Studies, University of South Florida