I collect mentions of the meritocracy myth. This one comes from Kimberlé Crenshaw’s Harvard Law Review paper “Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law” back in 1988.

Race consciousness also reinforces whites’ sense that American society is really meritocratic and thus helps prevent them from questioning the basic legitimacy of the free market. Believing both that Blacks are inferior and that the economy impartially rewards the superior over the inferior, whites see that most Blacks are indeed worse off than whites are, which reinforces their sense that the market is operating “fairly and impartially”; those who should logically be on the bottom are on the bottom. This strengthening of whites’ belief in the system in turn reinforces their beliefs that Blacks are indeed inferior. After all, equal opportunity is the rule, and the market is an impartial judge; if Blacks are on the bottom, it must reflect their relative inferiority. Racist ideology thus operates in conjunction with the class components of legal ideology to reinforce the status quo, both in terms of class and race.

The eradication of barriers has created a new dilemma for those victims of racial oppression who are not in a position to benefit from the move to formal equality. The race neutrality of the legal system creates the illusion that racism is no longer the primary factor responsible for the condition of the Black underclass; instead, as we have seen, class disparities appear to be the consequence of individual and group merit within a supposed system of equal opportunity. Moreover, the fact that there are Blacks who are economically successful gives credence both to the assertion that opportunities exist, and to the backlash attitude that Blacks have “gotten too far.” Psychologically, for Blacks who have not made it, the lack of an explanation for their underclass status may result in self-blame and other self-destructive attitudes.

Source: Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law

The meritocracy myth and the “lowering the bar” narrative are big barriers to inclusion. This study frames the struggle as “merit vs. the diversity imperative” and identifies it as one of four primary organizational challenges to D&I.

See also:

The Pipeline Problem and the Meritocracy Myth – Ryan Boren

The “Fix Injustice, Not Kids” Principle: Educational outcome disparities are not the result of deficiencies in marginalized communities’ cultures, mindsets, or grittiness, but rather of inequities. Equity initiatives focus, not on “fixing” students and families who are marginalized, but on transforming the conditions that marginalize students and families.

Source: Basic Principles for Equity Literacy

Meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.

Yet meritocracy itself is the bigger problem, and it is crippling the American dream. Meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.

Meritocracy frames this exclusion as a failure to measure up, adding a moral insult to economic injury.

Source: Meritocracy Harms Everyone – The Atlantic


Building an education system around ‘meritocracy’ as it is commonly used post-Thatcher may be a function of those in power being so privileged that they are not in a position to see their own privilege. Those who have never witnessed people having to work three jobs to keep their family afloat may not understand why parents can’t do more to coach their children through an entrance examination.

Given that we’re unlikely to recapture the original meaning of the word, I’d like to see meritocracy consigned to the dustbin of history as an outdated approach to society. At a time in history when we seek to be inclusive, to recognise and celebrate diversity, the use of meritocratic practices seems reactionary and regressive. Meritocracy applies a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach that – no surprises here – just happens to privilege those already in positions of power.

We’re now at a stage where meritocratic approaches to society are baked into our education systems. And they’re not working, even on their own terms. Even if you approach education on instrumentalist terms – for example, as being all about life skills or ensuring young people end up in employment – it’s not working. Employers are increasingly turning to alternative methods of hiring and away from formal academic credentials. They recognise that there is a direct connection between affluence and performance in school.

A simplistic meritocratic approach to society and our education systems has failed. It’s time to stop ‘doubling-down’ on narrow education targets and results that privilege the few and, instead, embrace more holistic, open approach such as Connected Learning and microcredentialing.

As a parent with an embarrassment of almost-worthless degree certificates to my name, I owe it to my children, and those everywhere, to help build a better, non-meritocratic system. Let’s raise all the boats in the harbour, rather than focus on those that are already shiny and seaworthy.

Source: Why It’s Time to Let Go of ‘Meritocracy’ – Connected Learning Alliance

I updated “The Pipeline Problem and the Meritocracy Myth” with selections from “Words Matter – Moving Beyond “Meritocracy” – Mozilla Stands for Inclusion” and “The end of ‘meritocracy’ at Mozilla | Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel”.

“Meritocracy” was widely adopted as a best practice among open source projects in the founding days of the movement: it appeared to speak to collaboration amongst peers and across organizational boundaries. 20 years later,  we understand that this concept was practiced in a world characterized by both hidden bias and outright abuse. The notion of “meritocracy” can often obscure bias and can help perpetuate a dominant culture. Meritocracy does not consider the reality that tech does not operate on a level playing field.

Source: Words Matter – Moving Beyond “Meritocracy” – Mozilla Stands for Inclusion

The world is not a neutral place and meritocracy can actually entrench privilege.

Source: The end of ‘meritocracy’ at Mozilla | Doug Belshaw’s Thought Shrapnel

I updated “The Pipeline Problem and the Meritocracy Myth” with an embed of this tweet.

NBC News on Twitter: “”It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his bootstraps. And many Negroes, by the thousands and millions, have been left bootless … as the result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma…” https://t.co/ycN2yl4qhP #MLK50… https://t.co/y3Qe5ThYRH”