The myth of meritocracy

William Singer

William Singer is going to jail. He’s the man who masterminded the college cheating scandal, collecting more than $25 million in bribes between 2011 and 2018 for helping the children of millionaires get into college through what he called “the side door.”

More than 50 people got caught up in his scam, including a couple of well-known actresses, and some not so well- known corporate CEOs who were willing to pay big money to get their unqualified children into elite colleges like Yale, Georgetown, and Stanford.

Extreme measures

Singer’s unsavory antics were outrageous – hiring people to take ACT and SAT scores for young people, photo-shopping photos onto athletic bodies, lying about student’s background and athletic prowess. He created opportunity for young people who are already endowed with the blessing of their parent’s wealth. It flies in the face of the notion of “meritocracy.”

If you are surprised by this entrance-buying scheme, you are deluding yourself. Wealthy people have been buying their children’s admission to elite schools for years; they just did it the legal way. They gave substantial contributions to colleges and then asked for a place for their children. Or, they took advantage of the legacy preference (affirmative action for White people) to get their children in. So Singer called himself “the side door” to admissions, with traditional admissions being the front door, and large contributions being the back door.

We in the African-American community are clear that the front door has often either been closed to us or slammed in our faces, while we lack the wealth to enter the back door or side door. The fact that money buys admission through either door makes the notion of meritocracy a bad joke.

Wealth, connections matter

Meritocracy suggests that people hold power (or have access to things like jobs or college seats) because of their ability, but America’s current leadership suggests that meritocracy is a myth. Our 45th president seems to lack the ability to behave himself (witness the attacks on John McCain), read a briefing book, or do his job correctly. He’s also found a gaggle of miscreants to make and implement public policy.

That Betsy DeVos runs the Department of Education flies in the face of meritocracy. That the man who lives in the House that Enslaved People Built brought his law-breaking daughter and son-in-law onto his staff as “senior advisors” flies in the face of meritocracy.

That the administration is actively seeking appeals court judges whose primary qualifications are their youth and conservatism flies in the face of meritocracy! Alison Rushing, at 37, has not even practiced law for a decade. Now she is a member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. That court covers North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, South Carolina and Maryland. She has a lifetime appointment! What meritocracy?

Nothing new for us

African-American people are clear that meritocracy has never worked for us. Even those who get into school “the old-fashioned way” come to the front door with myriad advantages that many African-American students – especially poor, working class and first-generation Black students – do not have.

The elites spent thousands of dollars on prep courses. They’ve used alumni-rich networks for recommendations and advice. They’ve taken advanced classes that are not available at all schools, especially inner-city schools. The playing field has never been level, nor has there ever been a meritocracy!

The real tragedy? Millions of African-American young people can’t afford to go to college, no matter their merit or ability. When they graduate, many face a hostile job market, and often experience pay discrimination. And even walking while Black might get you shot if the wrong police officer finds your walk “threatening.”

Meritocracy? Please.

Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. Her latest book, “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available at


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