In my readings and studies, I have had to unlearn many things. One of them is the myth of meritocracy. This belief that you can make it and be successful if you work hard enough should be banished. I am from the ghetto and grew up around many hard working people that didn’t make it out. The concept of the American dream was never afforded to them because it never existed. You may say, “Well what about person xyz? What about yourself LeRon?” Yeah I went to school and traveled a couple of places, but to be real with you, like many of my friends I was lucky. I didn’t do anything different than the average kid coming up. I am not special.
The idea of “From something to nothing” is a romantic view on life and is as American as baseball, apple pie, and white supremacy (Thank you Ras Kass). The story of the poor boy coming from a broken home and bleak circumstances fighting his way to the big city is well known and told with glee. Everyone at some point in their life has heard it. This tale was supposed to show America as the land of opportunity. If you work hard, anything is possible! And those who do not? Well you are just lazy and didn’t want anything out of life.
It breaks my heart to see Black and other non-white people as well as poor whites being “economically showcased” to the world to say, “See, this person came from the dirt and now they are a millionaire! Now they are successful. If they can do it, so can you!” But what if you try your hardest and don’t make it? Media content creator Yvette Carnell recently said the rich and elite are used to “disparage you and make it seem as if you aren’t working hard enough.” This belief of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is a fairy tale; it ain’t real. Let’s keep it all the way live: if the key to success was hard work, the poverty level would not be as deep as it is. In his 2012 book “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt”, Chris Hedges spoke of the frustration and lack of progress many felt. “The vaunted American dream the idea that life will get better, that progress is inevitable if we obey the rules and work hard, that material prosperity is assured, has been replaced by a hard and bitter truth.” If you are African-American or any other non-white race, the climb is even more steep. A friend recently told me a quote Kwame Toure, author and civil rights activist, said in regards to Black people making economic progress in America. “If hard work was all it took, Black people would own this country lock, stock and barrel.” In other words, it is all in the resources.
In 2015, Time Magazine published a report titled ” 2015 College Grads May Not Be As Ready for the Workplace as They Think They Are” citing the difficulty recent grads are having in the workforce. Writer Kaitlin Mulhere describes an employment landscape that “49% said they were underemployed or were working in a job that doesn’t require a college degree.” This does not sound like people “being lazy and sitting on their ass.” These are indivduals following the map to success: Go to college, graduate, and a job will be waiting for you.” What we are finding out is that “map” is outdated and doesn’t automatically guarantee a decent life.
When I walk through my neighborhood, the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and see people hooked on drugs, struggling to get by, and in total misery, I sometimes ask myself, “I wonder if people knew all of the untapped potential that is lost here?” No one wants to be poor, homeless, and addicted to narcotics and alcohol. I am sure they had a dream and the drive to be something more than what they are now. But maybe reality and the system beat them down and now here they are. Being unable to achieve the American Dream or what pop culture sells you what “being successful” looks like, drives people to depression and self disparage. It makes you doubt yourself and you start saying things like, “Well if I don’t have what this person has or make this amount of money or live here,” I haven’t done shit. It is all one big ass carrot and the stick/shaming culture big mashup clusterfuck.
Thinking back to when I was in high school and trying to figure out what my college major should be like every other student, I was surrounded by many talented and smart people. These kids got straight A’s, received academic honors, and were accepted into nationally ranked universities. One in particular received a full ride scholarship to a state college. I envied how easy he was able to grasp concepts, pass tests, and earn A’s. I would struggle and barely pass classes. When he left for college, I said to myself, “He is going to be very successful. He has got the world in the palm of his hands.” He and I met up 15 years later and I found him bouncing from job to job in an unstable job market. My friend had troubles paying his mortgage and supporting his family. Even with his Bachelor Degree in Business Administration, he was having a difficult time landing a job. My friend became bitter and jaded, saying, “I went to school, stayed out of trouble, and did what I needed to do and I still didn’t make it.” I think about that conversation sometimes because if someone like him–smart, educated, and capable–has not achieved the American Dream, then we are all fucked.
In writing this piece, I was inspired by Vice’s Black Market, a program that looks at the underbelly of life and how people “do what they do to get where they need to get.” Seeing people committing “Survival crimes” in one episode just to eat and live reaffirmed me that most of us are meant to never “make it.” This is not to say “just chill, don’t do anything”. I just want to put a realistic face on everything. Meritocracy is poisonous: it affects everyone. It presents to you an even playing field of “success is determined by how hard you work” and that is a fallacy. In order for this country to keep going the way it is, the majority have to be on the bottom, scrapping and scraping to get by. Maybe we need to redefine what success is. Or maybe we need to tell the truth that most of us are just locked out, and no matter how hard you try, you may not make it.
“The majority of Social agrees using the words “myth” “sham” “defunct” “a joke” and “a lie” to describe their opinions on meritocracy.” – Howard K. 30dB
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