Meritocracy as Magical Thinking: Priorities of the post-pandemic university

Arushi Manners

One of the first books in my infant’s growing collection was Anti-racist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi. Kendi introduces nine ways that children can grow up to make “equity a reality”. Two of these stood out to me: 

  1. Use your words to talk about race. No one will see racism if we only stay silent. If we don’t name racism, it won’t stop being so violent. 
  2. Point at policies as the problem, not people. Some people get more, while others get less…because policies don’t always grant equal access. 

In this children’s book, Kendi reminds us of the simple facts about racism that we often (choose to) forget, that racism is not about individuals but rather embedded in systems and institutions. Too often, concepts like meritocracy obfuscate institutional racism. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequities to the point where they should be obvious to all. The priorities of the post-pandemic university must include an examination of how uncritically embracing meritocracy upholds and erases institutional racism, followed by concrete actions to make equity a reality.  

It has been said that we are currently facing two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism. Systemic racism can explain why more Black people are dying in the pandemic, why fewer Black people go to university, and why more Black people live in poverty. The post (racial) pandemic university is one that works to dismantle structures and policies that have perpetrated social, political and economic violence. 

If we can see racism for what it is, a scar on society that damages us all, and if we can act to tackle it in all its forms, then the light that covid has shone on racism will guide us to a better place.

Fiona Godlee, editor in chief, the BMJ

Racism is a word which is often associated with overt malevolence, and it has become distorted over time. Refusing to label something racist unless it is overtly evil almost to the point of caricature conveniently shuts down conversation about wider patterns in our society, and topics that need to be discussed often go unheard: No one will see racism if we only stay silent…

In a similar vein, the great inertia of meritocracy has become an excuse to un-see colour, thereby denying the lived experiences of marginalised people and creating mechanisms for self-blame when some fail to succeed. Such thinking collapses existing social hierarchies, disparities and inequalities, and reduces individuals to units of merit. Meritocratic thinking, when enacted in a way that undermines systemic racism, is a form of violence: if we don’t name racism, it won’t stop being so violent.

Across the pond, racism serves as a barrier to African Americans’ achievement. Even if unintended, the promise of equality inherent in meritocratic ideology serves to elide racism. The diagram (from the same paper) outlines mechanisms by which meritocratic thinking creates barriers to opportunity, leading to poor health outcomes for Black Americans. 

Meritocratic thinking creates a narrative wherein individual drive and effort become primarily or exclusively the cause of someone’s success. Meritocratic thinking protects harmful policies that create a tapestry of folktales about why Black youth don’t apply to, or don’t succeed in higher education. Meritocracy untempered by an awareness of current and historical inequity ignores the fact that not only is the playing field uneven, but some people don’t even get to play on the same field as everyone else.

Post-pandemic universities must examine how meritocratic thinking informs every facet of their operation. Take algorithms, for example, which influence admissions decisions and research funding while purporting to bring an objectivity to these processes and therefore eliminate the possibility of discrimination. Evidence says otherwise, and universities must confront the reality that meritocracy, even when based in an algorithm, is not the same as objectivity.

Similarly, universities must not conflate diversity with equity. There is a danger of diversity policies becoming an exercise in performative allyship which skirts around meaningful action. Diversity is a necessary but not sufficient condition to our practice of equity. Simply increasing diversity on campus, whether it is within the student body or faculty, once again falls back on the idea that racism and discrimination are individualized phenomena rather than systemic barriers. Diversity initiatives are vital but will only truly succeed in an environment that is already moving towards equity. 

While COVID-19 might seem to accelerate social activism and catalyse change, it is important to remind ourselves that these wheels have been tirelessly turning for a long time. Rebecca Solnit uses metaphors of bonfires and waterfalls to depict the slow road to sudden change:

But none of these would have signified if the smallest thing hadn’t happened millions of times over: people changed their minds. Or in the case of the young, grew up with minds shaped by something better than the obliviousness and indifference that passed as not being racist in my own youth.

Rebecca Solnit, On the Decades of Activism that Leads to Historic Change

We cannot authentically engage with conversations about the post-pandemic university without understanding racism as a central problem in our institutions, and we must acknowledge that meritocracy upholds racism while simultaneously allowing us to claim everyone has an equal chance. Universities must disrupt the patterns currently in place and invest in a sustained and rigorous quest to improve access to education and create initiatives that are not just “not racist” but indeed are explicitly anti-racist. This involves listening: at a practical level, policy that is invested in reparative futures in education must give space to the experiences and knowledges of people whose histories have been silenced by or made marginal in educational systems and processes. This slow work is the fuel that will feed the fire. 

Universities serve an important role in shaping the future of thought and theory. As institutions gear towards a post-pandemic future, unpacking the failure of meritocracy must be a central priority. By claiming to be meritocratic systems, university policies maintain inequality: policies don’t always grant equal access. Perhaps we can take a page out of our children’s books to make equity a reality in the post-pandemic university.  

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Arushi Manners is a doctoral researcher in Learning Sciences at the University of Calgary. She also works in the field of educational development at a post-secondary institution in Toronto. 

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