By Julie Collins
Meritocracy is defined as a political system in which economic goods and/or political power are vested in individual people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than factors such as heredity or wealth.
“We don’t live in a meritocracy,” she quietly leaned into her herbal tea, speaking in earnest.
“Sure we do,” I quipped back, taking a slug of strong coffee. “It’s meritocracy for the rich, or the privileged.”
But who is considered privileged in today’s modern society? Do they just wander into these positions of privilege, are they born into meritocracy, or are they handpicked? The answer is all of the above.
People think, like my herbal tea drinking friend thinks, that because we have the greatest concentration of wealth moving upward to a small handful of people, that this somehow defines a lack of meritocracy. No, that statistic defines a lack of democracy. Democracy, when it actually works, allows for the appropriation of wealth and power among the masses. Workers could essentially own their own means of production, thus making management and CEO’s obsolete, and a system would be in place to lift up those in society who can’t work, to still find a way to live comfortably. And, in a working democracy, if a creative doesn’t have the talents to be a part of the working class, he could find his place in society elsewhere and thrive in that creative space and still be of use.
Meritocracy is something completely different than financial stability. It can come out of the school of thought of equality for all or better yet, egalitarianism. Meritocracy does exist in the United States but it only exists for the privileged, or for those society handpicks to be privileged.
As is typical in the United States, there are narratives spun to make the citizens believe that meritocracy exists. Those narratives are “Study hard, work hard, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you too can be a success.” This is fiction. When there is only meritocracy for the privileged, there are no bootstraps in which to grab on to or to pull up if you’re born outside of that privilege, or meritocracy.
“I had to lug my supplies all the way across town on many city buses because I don’t have a car and I had to work very hard to make a name for myself and do this business I started,” says “John,” who runs an LLC out of a modern art facility which acts as a non profit community based incubator he rents space from. This is an example of “bootstrap” language.
The quickest, simplest internet clicks and one can easily discover that “bootstrap” narratives don’t exactly match the truth about a person making a claim on that narrative in the first place.
Take Alexandria Ocasio Cortez for example. Her $10 million Netflix deal “Knock Down the House,” is fiction. Her multi-million dollar ad campaign video that lifted her up as a poor girl from the Bronx is fiction. She is the daughter of a wealthy architect who moved the family to one of the most sought after neighborhoods in upstate New York so his daughter (AOC) could attend one of the most expensive private academies in the nation. She then went on to graduate from one of the most prestigious universities in the country. She has never had to work, except at playing a role as “bartender” to convince you of that fake “bootstrap” narrative.
Organizations, usually in the form of non-profits, are strategically placed in what are called “opportunity zones” (these are areas of the United States that have been hit the hardest by the imploding and decimated economy, usually as a result of NAFTA or local political corruption – places like Flint or Detroit, Michigan, or Camden, New Jersey for example).
These organizations typically hand pick who will benefit from the meritocracy. These organizations pop up as “renewal for the local economy” or exist to “give locals who haven’t had opportunity, a boost in the right direction”. When what they really do is sell their zone to the highest bidder, who then builds on it and shuttles in workers from outside the zone itself, leaving the locals in the exact same position they were before and possibly even in a worse position: with no opportunity for work, and now competing for housing since outside workers are coming in and as we all know, outside workers need housing.
Thus the local population once again finds itself abandoned and pushed to the margins. And yet, the narrative the locals are told is to “just take advantage of these boosts these organizations exist to provide you with,” thus placing the blame squarely on the victim. This is called gas-lighting. The organizations are usually headed by corporate capitalist types who hold all the talent when it comes to gas-lighting their victims.
Recently, Donald Trump introduced an aggressive new policy: renewal and growth of opportunity zones spearheaded by Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In my own small town, a local diner that has been in the area for decades and one that many locals boast as having had their first real job, is being demolished on Fathers Day, so that a local Housing Authority office can be built in its place. This is a perfect example of the aggressive renewal initiative that Carson is spearheading.
Here’s a story: “I have a project in mind. All the local businesses are on board with this project. I’m new to the area and don’t know who a reliable person is to do this project. It’s an easy project, so won’t require too much skill.”
Often times these organizations have a “take care of their own” mentality. The project was handed over to one of their own hand picked small businesses, who benefits from this opportunity boost in this opportunity zone.
However, rather than hand this small business over to someone in the local community who would have been eager to make it a success and show pride in his local talent and business ethic, the organization chose to hand it over to someone who comes from an already privileged background, outside of the opportunity zone itself.
Since nothing at all is private on the internet, the project coordinator did some research on the small business owner. We’ll call him “John.” Yes, that John. Remember him? That same person who boasted the “bootstrap” narrative of having to haul his supplies across town?
“John” is lifted up in the local community and pushed hard by the organization as a hard-working, self sufficient, millennial who pulled himself up out of poverty. There’s that fake “bootstrap” narrative again. He works in the organization’s modern facility two days a week to be paraded around as an example that you too can come from the “hood” and make something of yourself.
“John,” like AOC, graduated from one of the top prestigious academies in the nation. The academy boasts of a $50 million endowment and is located in a high real estate market on the east coast of the United States. Many well known politicians that come out of this area also went to this private academy that demands a nearly $250,000 tuition for the entirety of its K-12 enrollment. Parents of kindergartners, for example, can expect to pay over $16,000.00 for the first year, and each year increases exponentially. This school caters to the privileged in ways that are unimaginable in opportunity zones (poor neighborhoods). It boasts of a beautiful campus where students can saunter down to a local stream that runs through their private grounds, and take water samples for their science classes. Once an all-male school that was founded in 1883, “John’s” background and experience is far from the “bootstrap” narrative he has been told to recite.
Once “John” graduated from this prestigious academy he went on to graduate from one of the top ranked universities in the country.
Why would someone who comes out of a privileged meritocracy like this, and who has never had to really suffer or work hard, be handed an LLC in an impoverished opportunity zone, and be granted access two days a week to a modern facility? Because “John” is being used as a colonizer, his rent check always cashes, and the organization he rents space from can fool the locals he works with into thinking he is one of them.
And “John” was the person recommended for the project. The project coordinator, not knowing “John” or his background and only having experience working with small businesses who would do anything to make themselves a success, was taken aback when “John” low balled his rate, refused to come into the opportunity zones to attend meetings and seemed nonchalant and disinterested in the project. Why would he want to leave his prestigious neighborhood more than he has to? In his mind, he already has to shlep it over to the hood two days a week to utilize the organizations facility.
On the phone and in person, “John” plays the part as any privileged millennial being groomed for politics or influence in their future. He comes across as genuine, relatable and reliable. Mastering his political future, he lies, makes empty promises and pretends he is something he is not. He is coddled by organizations that only have an interest in using him for their own narrative and an entire fleet of organizational heads make excuses for his absenteeism and bourgeoise laziness.
“Opportunity zones”, “colonizers” or “gentrifiers ” – whatever you want to call them – are spreading across the country. It’s not something that can be stopped. In the eight months I have lived in my new opportunity zone, the colonizing has been swift. To some, any change is a welcome respite from the continued abandonment and blight that grows when an economy is decimated. For others, it brings an unease when locals are being lied to right to their faces. My suggestion? When you meet the “Johns” in the world, ask them where they are from. I can almost guarantee you their answer will be “Not from around here.”