I would not want to return to the world of Georgian England, but I do think that era has something to tell us about the trouble with meritocracy. The meritocratic mind thinks that anyone who has not gained materially has failed to progress because of their own fault. We who are schooled in meritocratic thought — and I’m including myself in this number — find it easy to dismiss a felt obligation to others in our community, on the grounds that to do so is not required of us by meritocratic justice, or by some form of market reasoning. To be blunt about it, meritocracy in the post-industrial age provides a way up and out for the clever, but it consigns those who can only make their living through the nimbleness of their hands or the strength of their backs to the lower rungs of a hierarchy that may be as rigid as what came before — though this is harder to see, because it appears to us to be as natural and normal as aristocracy seemed to Englishmen of a past age.
Misplaced faith in our meritocracy, like social Darwinism, can blind us to real-life phenomena, as Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out:
I went on a Twitter rant yesterday because I’d finished Isabel Wilkerson’s phenomenal The Warmth Of Other Suns. The book is a narrative history of the Great Migration through the eyes of actual migrants. …
4) What becomes clear by the end of Wilkerson’s book is that America’s response to the Great Migration was to enact a one-sided social contract. America says to its citizens, “Play by the rules, and you will enjoy the right to compete.” The black migrants did play by the rules, but they did not enjoy the right to compete. Black people have been repeatedly been victimized by the half-assed social contract. It goes back, at least, to Reconstruction.
5) The half-assed social contract continues to this very day with policies under the present administration, like the bail-out of banks that left the homeowners whom the banks conned underwater. The results of the housing crisis for black people have been devastating. The response is to hector these people about playing video games and watching too much television. Or to tell them they’ve have “an achievement gap.” It is sickening, dishonest, and morally repugnant.
6) America does not really want a black middle class. Some of the most bracing portions of Wilkerson’s book involve the vicious attacks on black ambition. When a black family in Chicago saves up enough to move out of the crowded slums into Cicero, the neighborhood riots. The father had saved for years for a piano for his kids. The people of Cicero tossed the piano out the window, looted his home, torched his apartment and then torched his building. In the South, when black people attempted to leave to earn better wages, they were often forcibly detained, and thus kept in slavery as late as the 1950s.
On a policy level, there is a persistent strain wherein efforts to aid The People are engineered in such a way wherein they help black people a lot less. It is utterly painful to read about the New Deal being left in the hands of Southern governments which were hostile to black people, and then to today see a significant chunk of health care, again, left in the hands of Southern governments which are hostile to black people. At this point, such efforts no longer require open bigotry. They are simply built into the system.
7) “That the Negro American has survived at all, is extraordinary.” That is from the Moynihan report, which neo-liberals are fond of touting, while ignoring the report’s lengthy policy recommendations. …