clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is meritocracy a myth?

How the US education system perpetuates inequality and racism.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

Education in the United States is broadly framed as meritocratic: If you work hard and achieve in your studies, you’ll get ahead in school and life. In this way, the country’s education system has historically been considered an equalizer, a mechanism by which poor people get on equal footing with the wealthy, and Black people — once prevented from going to school — catch up with white people.

While America claims this system of fairness is a core tenet of its education system, merit alone doesn’t help people advance. Instead, factors like one’s family income and wealth and one’s race and gender play a role in the opportunities available to help someone achieve. From the moment a child enters a school system to the time they apply for college or graduate schools, these factors can impact the kinds of programs and schools they’re accepted into and how they’re treated. Assessments like the SAT that are supposed to measure merit only replicate privilege and inequality.

In this episode of Glad You Asked, we explore how meritocracy perpetuates inequality and racism, helping meritocrats believe that they’ve won due to their hard work and effort while leaving already marginalized groups behind.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. Subscribe for more.

Further reading:

Public Schools Admissions and the Myth of Meritocracy: How and Why Screened Public School Admissions Promote Segregation,” New York University Law Review

The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough

The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities by Natasha Warikoo

The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy by Nicholas Leman

Why the Myth of Meritocracy Hurts Kids of Color,” the Atlantic

What the College Admissions Scandal Says About Racial Inequality,” Vox

The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America by Anthony P. Carnevale, Peter Schmidt, and Jeff Strohl

Only 7 Black Students Got Into Stuyvesant, NY’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots,” the New York Times

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.