The notion of meritocracy hinges on the belief in a just system, or what researchers have called “system justification theory.” As theorists John Jost and Masharin Banaji explain, system justification theory is a psychological process by which people justify existing social arrangements as legitimate and fair, such as the belief that hard work, effort, and motivation lead to success. This theory locates the cause of events within personal attributes, and indicates that individuals should take personal responsibility for outcomes. For example, a recent article by John Jost, Brian Nosek, and Samuel Gosling notes that stability and hierarchy provide both structure and reassurance, in contrast with social change and equality that imply unpredictability and greater chaos, especially in large social systems.
The irony of system justification theory is that members of minority groups can view the locus of individual success or failure as solely due to their own efforts and discount the impact of socially-mediated forces of discrimination. We have seen examples in the recent press where minority leaders themselves emphasize personal responsibility while remaining silent on the impact of the forces of systemic discrimination. As Alvin Evans and I point out in Diverse Administrators in Peril , this viewpoint can undermine self-esteem when individuals impacted by discrimination internalize contemporary forms of oppression and become their own oppressors through self-blame and inappropriate attributions of instances of everyday discrimination to their own dispositional or personal inadequacies. It heightens what Wesley Yang calls “self-estrangement” by removing the factor of difference from the equation.
A study conducted by Frank Samson at the University of Miami highlighted in a recent article in Inside HigherEd clearly demonstrates the fluidity of the notion of meritocracy when applied to different minority groups. When one group of white adults in California was asked about the criteria that should be used in admissions processes, a high priority was placed on high school grade-point averages and standardized tests. Yet when a control group was told that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates in the University of California system compared to their representation in the state population, the participants then favored a reduced role for test and grade scores in the admissions process. They further indicated that leadership should be given greater weight.
Since Asian American scores on the SAT topped white average scores by 1641 to 1578 this year and the leadership abilities of Asian Americans tend to be unrecognized , the shift in criteria by study participants shows that meritocracy means different things when applied to different groups. Samson attributes this shift to “group threat” from Asian Americans and suggests that key Supreme Court decisions based upon the framework of meritocracy might have been decided differently if different groups had been involved. Samson notes the exclusionary rhetoric that emphasizes “qualifications” applied in discussions of opportunities that can exclude African-Americans and how this framework shifts when applied to Asian Americans. In an earlier post, I cited a June 14 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Stacey Patton that explains how the frequent argument about “lack of qualified candidates” for top roles becomes a loaded and coded divergence—a smoke screen that feeds stereotypes of minorities as less capable, intelligent, or experienced (p. A4).
Certainly the road to attainment of meritocracy will require consideration of the many detours we have taken in the course of American history. Perhaps we need to be reminded that a true meritocracy is still an aspirational goal and in the words of Martin Luther King, represents “a promissory note” that will “open the doors of opportunity” to all Americans.