The myth of American meritocracy

A Wall Street Journal columnist recently argued we’re entering an “era of mediocrity” as if we haven’t been living in one since this country’s inception.

When I think about the poster child of American mediocrity, Donald T**** is the first person who comes to mind. He lacks any special talent. He inherited a lot of money and lost most of it in the first couple of decades he was a business developer. And the decades just before he ascended to the presidency, his income came from licensing and entertainment — not building things, a skill he touted on the campaign trail. “Trump seems to have two genuine talents. The first is that he’s apparently a masterful reader of people. The second is that he’s a hypnotic blowhard, which accounts for his success at both branding and TV, as well as his success at scams like Trump University.,” Kevin Drum wrote for Mother Jones in 2016. “He lets his decisions be guided by his gut, and his gut isn’t really very good.” And he’s bypassed every opportunity to prove us wrong by refusing to open up his books. Meanwhile, his predecessor Barack Obama, as Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded us on The Daily Show in 2016, “had to be scholarly, intelligent, president of the Harvard Law Review, the product of some of our greatest educational institutions, capable of talking in two different worlds … Donald [T****] had to be rich and white. That was it. That’s the difference.”

So you can imagine how darkly ironic I found a recent column by Andy Kessler for The Wall Street Journal on the “era of mediocrity” he claims we’re entering. First, Kessler pointed to decisions by the College Board and a local high school to eliminate the essay portion of the SAT as well as all of the separate SAT subject tests and remove honors English from the curriculum to close the socioeconomic and racial education gap as proof that we’re “[dumbing] down high school.” Then, he attacked corporate diversity and inclusion departments: “As far as I can tell, the No. 1 job of a D&I department is to hire more people into the D&I department. No one ever mentions excellence.” Kessler also peddled the flawed logic that the provisions in Biden’s rescue plan — including a $15 minimum wage, $1,400 stimulus checks and $400 weekly unemployment payments — will incentivize Americans to embrace government handouts over earning a living for themselves. He railed against redistribution tactics like higher taxes, ending the special rate for capital gains and the passage of a wealth tax. Investments in climate change steal from “productive funding,” he alleges — before minimizing the significance of several of the glass-ceiling-shattering nominations to President Biden’s cabinet. His closing argument is a tired recitation of America’s well-worn personal responsibility motif: “Excellence, like [COVID-19] vaccines, doesn’t come from luck or laziness but from hard work and perseverance.” OK, Boomer.

What Kessler fails to acknowledge is that we’ve been living in an era of mediocrity since this country’s inception that’s largely benefitted white men. “Our entire society is built to ensure that white men hoard power. And it’s important to remember that the women and people of color most violently harmed by these systems are those who are also queer, transgender or disabled,” Ijeoma Oluo wrote in Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America. “White male mediocrity seems to impact every aspect of our lives, and yet it only seems to be people who aren’t white men who recognize the imbalance.” And as a result, according to Oluo, white men are not only encouraged in their mediocrity but also rewarded for it.

Kessler’s beef is that “in the name of ‘equity,’ it’s better to be mediocre than manifest merit.” But meritocracy, in the American sense at least, is a myth. “There are all sorts of systems and institutional barriers that have worked for centuries to ensure that large segments of our society — regardless of talent, skill or character — will never be allowed to rise out of poverty or powerlessness,” Oluo wrote. This privilege to sidestep these barriers has convinced white people like Keller that their success is solely due to their effort and achievement. A true meritocracy, as I wrote last summer, requires that all its participants have equal access to a level playing field. “Why is it so hard to admit that certain folks have had an advantage forever?” author Jamie Beck tweeted in response to Kessler’s column. “Merit still gets rewarded in the end, but everyone deserves a chance to succeed.”

The meritocracy myth also ignores the communities that actually built this country’s wealth while being disempowered and impoverished by its successes. “They were enslaved people, migrant laborers, and domestic workers. Much of this country’s early infrastructure, for example, was built with slave labor, and then with grotesquely underpaid immigrant labor and prison labor,” Oluo wrote. “Many of our business and political leaders were freed to dedicate their time and energy to their professional success by the unpaid labor of wives and mothers and the underpaid labor of nannies and housekeepers.” And during the pandemic, these women still find themselves facing the cultural expectation that they should serve as, what Eve Rodsky called in her book Fair Play, the “she-fault” person responsible for invisible labor that keeps a family running.

The fact that Kessler’s worldview requires someone to be exceptional for a living wage, access to quality affordable health care or receive relief during a generational public health crisis that was exacerbated by the previous administration’s ineptitude says more about him than those who would do well from these benefits. He wrote about the American exceptionalism and innovation that brings “the rest of us life-enhancing devices and services” due to a culture that “drive[s] and demand[s] excellence” and “market[s] that reward it.” But Kessler’s contempt for the kind of economic recalibration that would neutralize the unnecessary hurdles that preoccupy overlooked and underserved creators suggests wealthy or well-connected white men are the only ones entitled to the opportunities that innovation enables.

And for what it’s worth, I racked my brain and still couldn’t remember an instance where I could be mediocre and successful at the same time. I shared an anecdote last summer in this essay about when I started my magazine career as an assistant in the fashion closet with another assistant who was Black too. We both knew that we had to show our exceptionalism every day to prove ourselves worthy of our seats at the table. As for our white counterpart, on the other hand, she rode the wave of her multiple internships and influential connections, unworried about if her next mistake would be her last. And while I’m deeply grateful for the valuable mentorship and opportunities from several editors that paved the way for me to live off my work, what Kessler’s blind spots prevent him from realizing is that I represent the exception and not the rule.

Despite my relative success though, I’m not the hardest worker I know. I’m not the smartest. Or the most talented. There are people who if merit prevailed would catapult ahead of me with great ease. On the flip side, I work harder than some white journalists I know. I’m smarter. I’m more talented. If merit prevailed, I would propel ahead of them without breaking much of a sweat. But the wealthy and powerful would rather uphold this status quo under the guise of mediocrity rather than acknowledging that their success is measured only by how much better they fare than people who aren’t them. Next time Kessler should just say as much.

In The Know

CULTURE: The Atlantic introduced “Inheritance,” a project it describes as “about American history, Black life and the resilience of memory. It debuts on the cover of the magazine’s March issue and is designed to “fill the blank pages of Black history through reporting and data, the crucial events and conversations that have been intentionally left out of America’s narrative.”

CORONAVIRUS: According to estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the nation's first month of COVID-19 vaccinations, 5.4 percent of people who received a vaccine were Black. Experts say increased outreach and education, improved access to vaccines, and partnerships with “trusted influencers” on social media, TV and radio stations will help increase the number of Black and Latino people getting COVID shots. 

POLITICS: Congressional Democrats rejected a Republican proposal to reduce the next direct payment from the Biden Administration’s rescue package from $1,400 to $1,000. The earliest you’re likely to receive a third stimulus check is mid-March. Plus: 82 advocacy groups call on President Biden to end federal executions after an unprecedented run of capital punishment under Donald T****.

BUSINESS: Media executives find themselves under pressure to adapt their news coverage into a streaming future now that T**** is out of the spotlight. A new approach could be to bundle TV and print news, two products that have traditionally existed as separate businesses.

TECH: California State Senator Connie Leyva introduced the Silenced No More Act, which would ban the use of non-disclosure agreements in situations involving harassment or discrimination. The legislation is co-led by Ifeoma Ozoma, a former Pinterest employee who alleged racial and gender discrimination in 2020. Also: Experts are studying how to deprogram online extremism, including investing in anti-extremism counseling programs, support groups and rehab organizations to offramp people who have been radicalized by extremist ideologies. And: iOS 14.5 will let users select a third-party default music service — including Spotify — when you ask to play a song using Siri.


“It seems like the only good Republican to a lot of people is one that is no longer in power and is irrelevant or a person who goes on TV or sort of atones for the sins of the Republican Party.”

Meghan McCain, co-host of The View, laments about the frustration establishment conservatives feel within the modern Republican Party.

Read All About It

Rebecca Jennings at Vox on the problem with mental health TikTok and ADHD:

Arguably no part of mental health TikTok is as omnipresent or as fraught as ADHD TikTok, where professionals and people with ADHD attempt to share information and experiences about how to cope and what signs to look out for if you think you might have it. ADHD, which is often mischaracterized by stories of parents who just want to drug their children or adults using phony diagnoses to abuse stimulants, has already been heavily stigmatized for decades; the discussions on TikTok typically stem from the response to that stigma, where folks remind each other that their symptoms and shame are okay, and that they’re in fact quite common.

Nilay Patel at The Verge in conversation with Charlton McIlwain, professor at New York University and author of Black Software on how Black communities shaped the internet:

You could see not only what was being produced culturally, but you could see who was benefiting and profiting, and the ownership structure was very different for a very short period of time. So to see that explosion of Black culture and Black ownership and value all at the same time was certainly, I think, a moment to be recognized and celebrated. But then come ‘98, ‘99, 2000, pretty much all of that is gone. What you see that is the story that is flat from that point on, in my opinion, is the continued recognition of the value of Black culture, of Black cultural products, but without the critical elements of ownership and value or profit that comes back to Black creators, entrepreneurs, etc. So that’s the story that I think remains flat, that everywhere, as you mentioned, you see Black culture. You see the celebration of that culture. You see the ways in which Black culture powers social media platforms and everything else. But I don’t think we’ve found a way to create real value, in a sense of Black folks largely standing to benefit from the profits of that. I go back and forth to whether I’m optimistic or pessimistic about whether that’ll ever happen. All I know is that it takes and will take an outsize level of capital and investment to make sure that that happens. We’ll wait and see to see if that actually materializes.

Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein at The New York Times on how President Biden united a fractious party under one tent:

The singular focus on the pandemic has enabled Mr. Biden to align the central promise of his campaign — a more effective government response — with the priorities of party officials in battleground states, who say that voters expect Mr. Biden to deliver a competent vaccine distribution along with direct economic relief. Already, there is widespread agreement within the party that Democrats will be judged in the 2022 midterms and the 2024 presidential contest by their handling of the twin crises.

Austin Carr at Bloomberg on how Apple CEO Tim Cook transformed the company after Steve Jobs:

Cook’s handling of Trump suggests how Apple, which declined to comment for this story, might approach now-President Biden. Over the next four years his White House will continue pushing to increase U.S. manufacturing and may support congressional scrutiny of potentially anticompetitive practices, egged on by Facebook Inc. and other companies that say Apple exercises too much power. But Cook has been counterpunching, broadening his influence over the mobile phone industry while marketing Apple’s commitment to privacy as the antidote to the practices of social media companies. Moreover, Cook’s unflappable temperament makes him well suited to the polarized political climate. Allies praise his operational skills and diplomatic instincts. “Tim may not be able to design a product like Steve,” says Warren Buffett, who knows Cook well and whose Berkshire Hathaway Inc. has a stake in Apple worth $111 billion, as of a September filing. “But Tim understands the world to a degree that very, very few CEOs I’ve met over the past 60 years could match.”

Doris A. Santoro at EducationWeek on why teacher demoralization isn’t the same as teacher burnout:

It is worth distinguishing teacher demoralization from burnout. Teachers’ ongoing value conflicts with the work (demoralization) cannot be solved by the more familiar refrain for teachers to practice self-care in order to avoid exhaustion (burnout). Demoralization occurs when teachers cannot reap the moral rewards that they previously were able to access in their work. It happens when teachers are consistently thwarted in their ability to enact the values that brought them to the profession.

Burnout, on the other hand, happens when teachers are pushed to the brink of exhaustion and are entirely depleted. The rhetoric of teacher resilience offers a clear culprit in the scenario of burnout—the teachers themselves who failed to conserve their energy and internal resources.

Elizabeth Segran at Fast Company on why President Biden should appoint a fashion czar:

The fashion industry is a $2.5 trillion beast with tentacles in every corner of the world, and yet it operates with little oversight or regulation. It employs more than 75 million people, the majority of whom are poorly paid women, who are vulnerable to abuse. This vast global supply chain means that no single country has been forced to take ownership of the terrible damage it has caused to the planet and workers. President Biden has expressed a desire to make the United States a leader in the climate fight at home and abroad. As part of this effort, he can set the agenda on how to clean up the global fashion industry, paving the way for other nations to do their part.

Michael’s Pick

Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Round Grill Pan ($100): It’s unlikely that I’ll enjoy the flavors of outside cooking anytime soon so this deep grill pan is the second-best alternative.