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


  1. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    I think one glaring contradiction is our education system. Nobody seriously think all children have access to the same quality of education. People talk about the high drop out rate of inner-city schools. What they don’t talk about, maybe cause they don’t know, is that some schools depend on students dropping out in order to have the resources to teach the ones who stay. There’s no way they’d be able to afford facilities and material to teach the kids if no one dropped out.

    And that has nothing to do student ability or attitude toward education. In fact, it’s not even an indication of how the parents feel. Dollar for dollar, inner city parents pay a higher percentage of their income to public education than do parents in the burbs. They just don’t have the property tax value or incomes to support better schools. If partisans really cared about education, rather than siphoning money away from public education in the form of vouchers for private schools; they’d abolish municipal funding of schools and transfer the responsibility to the states.

    Currently what we have are schools producing low-income workers who’ll only be able to afford low-income schools.

    Is it possible still to beat the odds? Yes, absolutely. But if the fact is that a person has to be an extraordinary individual to have a chance at beating the odds, then clearly we don’t live in a meritocracy. And if you’re honestly worried that telling children they’ll have to face any numbers of -isms, most especially racism, in life will kill their will to succeed; you should be equally, if not more, worried that telling them we live in a meritocracy when we don’t will do the same. After all, if you’re too dumb to succeed, you’re may as well not try.

    Some other commenters may feel I’m oversimplifying the meritocracy argument just to make my point. To you I say, “Did I do that?” in my Steve Urkel voice.

  2. cordoba blue

    In North Carolina, where I’ve lived my entire life, and also taught 7th grade, I’ve encountered MILLIONS of “extraordinary” African Americans. Certainly, thousands of classroom teachers, principals, and Special Ed teachers.
    Now let’s leave the educational arena. Thousands of middle management (and this is just in the city where I live by the way) and upper management middle class blacks. My internist is African American..he’s Ultra Extraordinary. Thousands of black business owners..they’re very special too..the exception to the rule that African American kids have the entire world on their shoulders and can’t achieve for nothin’.
    Of course, not to worry, there are MANY African American kids who fall into the category of adopting the “isms” to heart and refuse to focus in class, rarely hand in homework assignments, have un-involved parents, call tests and classwork “racist” and then laugh with their friends..not realizing that by using the crutch so handily, the joke is on them. Yes, pushing the racism meme (and somebody close to them had to have already done a fantastic job of this) is a GREAT WAY OUT of applying yourself. The consequences of Subjective and Unrelenting Victimology is these kids are faced with a life time of low self esteem, jobless existence, and (what a surprise) maybe a free pass to jail. But this was inevitable anyway, right?
    Again, not to worry, because many black students have totally and, serenely I might add, adopted this approach to existence.. because then “no more homework, no more books, no more teachers’ racist looks”. Of course, kids being kids, don’t look too far into the future do they? Maybe it’s up to GENUINE ADULTS (people with children themselves and teachers who are trained to do so) to guide them.

  3. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    African American kids have the entire world on their shoulders and can’t achieve for nothin’.

    NOBODY SAYS THAT!!!!!!!!!

    For the love of god, will you stop with that meme cause NOBODY’S SAYING THAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not me, not Dr. Kaplan, not even a bare minority of the black community says that. So stop it!!

    Me? I’ve been black all my life, and never have I encountered any black middle school student, or high school student for that matter, who blames racism for a general lack of achievement, much less for their not being prepared for class. Oh, I’ve heard of a few who try. I’ve even heard of a couple of parents who’ll believe it – but actually, where I live, there’s this area where that could actually be the case.

    But I digress.

    Black teachers only make up 15% of all teachers, so you must’ve traveled to a lot of teachers’ workshops around the country to have met that many. If there’re really thousands of middle class blacks where you live, then you must live in Durham.

    Do I really need to tell you that Durham is unique in its racial history?

    If not Durham, then Charlotte. Charlotte, where’s there’s just hundreds of thousands of people period.

    And since I’m really just putting off something else I should be doing, let me tell you what’s really racist about your argument: that you think African Americans are so weak-minded and weak-willed that we would give up reaching for success at the first hint of racism. As though we’re something less than human, or actually, less than any other living being. No, those exceptions you mention are to your own rule that talking about racism kills African Americans’ drive to succeed. You really think those blacks in upper-management and your doctor have never encountered racism? You really think they go home and never discuss racism? Truth is, your black co-workers probably went home and talked about your racism. My internist is black, too, and the best way to push a 30min visit (cause he doesn’t do 5min meet’n’greet) into an hour is to talk about race. Unless I’m really pissed about recent news, I avoid that topic as best I can.

    See, that’s why I added the addendum that my oversimplification had some basis in reality. People, especially white men, really do cite feeling like failures when they lose their jobs. Even if they know intellectually it had nothing to do with them personally, and everything to do with the economy.

    Honestly, if we’re using your argument, their should be no white high school drops outs at all. Especially, not white male drop outs. Every single white man who’s not mentally challenged should have, at the very least, a professional certificate in a 2-yr program. Is that the case? Or do white high school drop outs and white kids who rarely do their homework blame racism, too? Like they’re being taught that only black folks did anything good through American history. Damn those 20 school days of black history month!

    But wait – I’ve only discussed two logical fallacies and one dimension of racism in your argument. Another dimension of racism is that your presumption to know so much about the African American community when you appear to know nothing.

    So quit with that racist meme of yours. Nobody, and I do mean NOBODY, says black children can’t do well in school, and shouldn’t even try, because of racism. You got that? N-O-B-O-D-Y!! If you knew anything at all about the black community, you’d know discussing racism actually . . .

    Oh! It doesn’t seem like you can handle the truth right now. But when you’re ready for it, I’ll let you in on what’s apparently a secret to white folks. Though, I concede that my reluctance to give you a full explanation of how we respond to racism is itself a response to the racism of your argument.

  4. cordoba blue

    Well, now that we’re discussing who’s actually in the trenches helping black kids to succeed, I guess that’s ME! Because I have N-E-V-E-R given up on a black kid who even half tries.
    You said: “Let me tell you what’s really racist about your argument: that you think African Americans are so weak-minded and weak-willed that we would give up reaching for success at the first hint of racism.”
    Before this you stated: “Is it possible still to beat the odds? Yes, absolutely. But the fact is that a person has to be an extraordinary individual to have a chance at beating the odds.”
    Anybody see a CONTRADICTION here? So which is it? If, as you say, the odds are so against blacks that ONLY EXTRAORDINARY blacks can beat the odds…well..you said that Swan..NOT me. I don’t think blacks ARE WEAK-MINDED at all… IF nobody comes along and cripples them at the get-go with the victimology meme.
    You are the one always beating the “Blacks don’t do well in school because of education’s inherent racism” drum..NOT ME. Don’t turn this into a “Cordoba’s a racist” conflict just because I think your glittering generalizations are handing young black students a terrible legacy. I was the one claiming African Americans are VERY CAPABLE of success despite racism..not you!
    So why come back at me, using MY own personal philosophy, and making it YOUR OWN? As in “Do you think a little racism can stop us!” Now that’s courage. That’s doing the ante-up thing all humans must decide..personal responsibility. That’s not victimology. A little MORE of that spirit of perseverence and intrepid lion and a little LESS of the “all whites must change..before we can have our day in the sun..or even a decent home..or a decent job.” Melodrama and theatrics instead of pragmatic reality all day long.And what will African Americans do if many whites never change?
    I think being a black person in America and confronting racism should be a two-pronged approach: fight racism AND take personal responsibility for your own behavior. Make (if this doesn’t sound trite)smart personal choices. Education is Always a savvy choice because Knowledge is Power. And even though some racism does exist in the schools in North Carolina, there’s still plenty of black and white teachers who twist themselves into pretzels for their students. I used to be one of them..so I oughta know.
    Teaching is a calling..and you must love children to have it. So don’t call my arguments of taking responsibility for one’s actions in any way racist. That’s a rebuttal by default. No where else to turn..well…there’s always the racism meme. It would be refreshing if you declined, for once, not to opt for beating that particular drum and made Reasonable Statements.
    North Carolina is, by the way, in the Sun Belt. One of the fastest growing areas in North America. People from all over the world move to NC because the cost of living is low,the climate is mild, and there are many corporate headquarters here. The building industry in my city was booming for decades until the recession.
    Still, for people who took the time to get an education and acquire skills, it’s a veritable paradise compared to the job markets in other parts of the country..for blacks and whites. I am an ESL tutor, and I work 7 days a week teaching new-comers from other countries English. I have people on a waiting list!
    If you absolutely can’t find employment where I live..well..your own personal choices Certainly Contributed to that situation. And if you’re a tiger of a black person, which I highly recommend, You Will Absolutely Find Work.

    • ThirtyNine4Ever

      So let me get this clear with a “yes or no” question:

      So are you saying that in the United States of America, in 2011, a black person has just as much chance for success as a while person and that it is their attitude that causes the racial disparity?

      • cordoba blue

        You are way behind in this discussion. NO. Not saying that. I am also Not saying this: “Black children don’t do well in school because of the inherent racism of the system”.
        Logic tells us there is some racism in the system, but since I’ve worked with black children for many years, I know they are perfectly capable of excelling if they apply themselves like any other student. If they don’t apply themselves, they fail..like any other student. That’s not racism, that’s fair and equitable treatment.
        No student should be given a “A” if their score on a test is a “D”. The kids who study are rewarded. Do you disagree ThirtyNine? Or should the system be a total sham and everybody should receive the same grade whether they study or not? Where is incentive then? Where is pride in achievement then ThirtyNine? Don’t presume you have experience as a parent or a teacher. You are not a parent NOR a teacher are you?
        In North Carolina, where basically half the faculty in public schools is black, I myself have witnessed virtually no bias against African American students. Teachers don’t go into teaching for the money, cause their isn’t any. The do it because they love children.
        Don’t make the mistake of thinking I am answering a gross inaccuracy with another gross inaccuracy.

  5. cordoba blue

    Excuse me, but I just re-read your post and discovered another attempt to put your words in my mouth.

    “Honestly, if we’re using your argument, there should be no white high school drops outs at all. Especially, not white male drop outs.”
    Swan. What is going on here? If we are Using YOUR (Swan’s) arguments about racist victimology of black students there should be No White High School Drop Outs. Because…racism doesn’t affect white kids? What in the world is your basis for claiming I believe this? You are transforming your own thoughts ERRONEOUSLY into MY STATEMENTS! It’s frustrating having a debate with you because re-reading your post that’s the SECOND time you did that.
    Again, my argument states that any color kid who doesn’t apply themselves will fail. I also said on another thread that a white 15 year old drop-out has the same dismal future as a black 15 year old drop-out. How in the world does that translate into white kids never dropping out? There are lazy kids of all colors..surprise..surprise. Such a revelation. Being children, kids will gladly grab at any excuse not to apply themselves to academics. Goes with the territory.
    Thus, to take this tendency of all kids to want to play instead of work and “let them off the hook” using a racism meme…that’s not responsible teaching or parenting.
    I NEVER said white kids weren’t perfectly willing to play video games all day instead of reading To Kill a Mockingbird.They are just as likely to fall victim to the “perpetual lazies” as any other kids anywhere in the world. The key is not to let children off the hook.
    Being a truly caring parent is not a democracy, nor a popularity contest. A conscientious parent,a conscientious teacher, does not take the pressure off. Chances are, not being a parent nor a teacher, you might interpret “pressure” as another form of racism. It’s very difficult to tell where your thoughts will go, given you do have a tendency to see everything through the lens of racism…especially when speaking to a white commentator.
    In summary, I am totally confused why you think my philosophy means white kids don’t drop out. Quite baffling.

    • ThirtyNine4Ever

      You must have missed my question:

      “So let me get this clear with a “yes or no” question:

      So are you saying that in the United States of America, in 2011, a black person has just as much chance for success as a while person and that it is their attitude that causes the racial disparity?”

      From what I read of your posts that seems to be your stance.

      • cordoba blue

        And again I reply, don’t you believe attitude and personal decision makes a difference Thirty-Nine? There is racism everywhere in America..in little corners even where most people don’t look.
        However, I have eye-witnessed thousands of black people achieve middle class status through continuing education and high self-esteem coupled with work. Sometimes, the ghost of racism can cripple a young student. If you tell someone they will fail despite their best efforts (would you tell someone that Forty-Nine..seriously if you were the parent of a black child..would you tell him that? Quid Pro Quo..answer the question please) they automatically give up.
        What’s the BEST alternative…trying and achieving middle class status even if encountering racism along the way OR dropping out and joining the hood gang to end up in the state pen by 23? You tell me.What would you advise your own African American son, if you had one? Would you tell him to slack off in school because “it won’t do any damn good anyway”? Really?

  6. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    It’d probably help you, CBlue, if you went back and re-read a lot of my posts. I’ve never said 99% of the things you’ve put in my mouth. For example:

    “all whites must change..before we can have our day in the sun..or even a decent home..or a decent job.”

    I’VE NEVER SAID THAT!!!!!!!!!

    For the love of god, will you stop with that meme cause NOBODY’S SAYING THAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not me, not Dr. Kaplan, not even a bare minority of the black community says that. So stop it!!

    Let’s acknowledge white racism and Eurocentrism in our education system, then we can talk about how black students should deal with it. The blog is called “racism review,” not “responding to racism review”.

  7. Blaque Swan, previously No1KState

    @ Cordoba – Alas, you can’t get me off the brain, huh? Let me do you a favor and short-cut the rereading you haven’t done.

    As in “Do you think a little racism can stop us!” Now that’s courage. That’s doing the ante-up thing all humans must decide..personal responsibility. That’s not victimology.

    That’s the position we take!

    Victimology is the study of victims of a crime, why a serial criminal chooses the particular victims at the particular time. What you’re talking about is defeatism. I’m sorry – there’s just no evidence of defeatism in the black community, making accusations of such, accusations of “victim-mentality,” racist.

    Reread my posts. I’ve never said slacking off or being lazy is okay for any reason. I’ve never said anything like that. Ever. I’ve only ever pointed out that when a disparity can’t be explained by socioeconomics, the cause is racism. That’s it. That’s all I’ve ever said. You’ve been the one to assume I believe dropping out of high school is okay. I’ve never said that. I do believe and have said its understandable. I’ve never said it’s okay. I’ve always been very clear about that. The reason you’re confused is that you insist putting words in my mouth and on jumping to conclusions about what I mean when I point out racism. That’s not my fault. That has nothing to do with my thoughts. That’s all on you.

    Could I have been more clear in distinguishing the difference between understandable and okay? Perhaps. Could I have long ago explained how the black community really does respond to racism? Yes. But first off, it’s not my fault you made assumptions about what I believe rather than reading the words I’d written on the page.

    Secondly, I don’t believe in letting white folks off the hook by discussing how blacks cope with racism before they’ve acknowledged the implications of their racism. I’m disgusted with myself for doing so now. But the entire history of our exchange has been so sickening, I guess it’s worthwhile to get this fleme off my stomach.

    Now, you pointed out that some kids are just plain lazy. If you’re equating laziness with dropping out of school, without looking at the context, I see why you think I’m letting kids off the hook. Which, again, I have never even addressed. Not with you, anyway.

    Racism review is where I come to gain more understanding of the context under which these things take place. So let’s do just that. On average, even the schools middle class blacks attend have fewer resources than the schools poor whites attend. Poor whites are more likely to attend an economically diverse school than are poor and middle class blacks. That means, on average, even poor whites have better access to quality education than do middle class blacks. That’s point #1.

    Point #2 – Many schools that happen to be minority-dominate don’t have the resources to educate all school age children. They need some of the kids to drop out. If no one dropped out, there could be 50+ students to a class. Kids do drop out and schools are still overpopulated. More than 30 students in a single class places enough strain on what the teacher can accomplish. To top it off, there’s only enough material for 10-15 students. Ergo, these schools need kids to drop out in order to teach the ones who stay. That’s not the kids fault. It’s not the parents’ fault. For example, NYC’s inner-city parents pay a higher property tax, and therefore portion of their income, to public education than parents in the suburbs. They just don’t have the property value of parents in the suburbs.

    #3 – Once you hold for socioeconomic status, much of the disparity disappears.

    Which all means that if white kids were in the position of black kids, the disparity would reverse! Why should society expect black kids to be more studious than white kids. Let’s address that issue first before we get to whether or not black kids have the ability. Let’s deal with first things first: racism.

    Consider this, every study done has shown that all students misbehave at the same rate. Black kids no more or less likely to misbehave than are white kids. Where classroom behavior is concerned, black children are holding up their end of the bargain. Yet, they’re still disciplined, suspended, and expelled more than white kids. That’s racism. All day, every day.

    So let’s address racism first. Once we address racism, we find that all kids are just kids. What I think about how students should cope is irrelevant at this point. That’s not the issue. The issue now is racism. And I refuse to put “pressure” on black kids to be better than white kids. Not because I think it’s futile, but because I think it’s wrong to do so. To demand more of one group than is demanded of another is unjust and racist.

    Your thinking is too heavily influenced by your experiences in (Durham,) NC. Not even Charlotte has the problem with overcrowding that other cities have. Plus, in NC, every school system is run and funded at the county level whether than the municipal. That negates some of the difference in property tax base between cities and suburbs. Moreover, I’m not limiting my discussion to NC, which scores among the top when it comes to standardized tests. I’m thinking in national terms.

    So stop putting words in my mouth based on your own assumptions. That’s on you. If you can’t accept that I’ve never said quitting is okay, then don’t address me. Don’t call me out. Don’t mention me in a completely unrelated post. Just ignore me and then we’ll both be happy.

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