Instead of blaming problems on centuries-old events, encourage young people to work hard.
One of the most fashionable progressive ideas on American college campuses today is that of institutional inequity: the idea that racism, sexism, homophobia, and other acts of discrimination are less the work of individuals, and more vast structural inequalities built directly into our institutions. Perpetuated by schools, police departments, and governments of all shapes and sizes, this institutional inequity is inescapable because it is so ingrained in our systems. These systems of oppression remain a fact of life, delivering relentless beatdowns again and again to marginalized people and destroying their chances of getting to a better life.
As this bleak view of our nation has gained adherents among the campus left and beyond, it has become the weapon of choice in a war on meritocracy and on free will at large. Institutional inequities are so great and so insuperable, this view’s proponents argue, that members of marginalized groups are destined to occupy society’s underclass and therefore ought not to indulge the fantasy that they—not an alphabet soup of systems of oppression—have the ultimate control over the trajectories of their lives. Meritocracy is a myth, the American dream a cruel impossibility.
This emerging fixture of modern progressive thought, however, is false and destructive. It denies the evident truth that human agency grants individuals the capacity to succeed and overcome despite manifestly unjust institutions. Characterizing agency as a myth or a fantasy is devastating to the ostensible victims of institutional oppression. Because the boot of “The Man” will press upon your throat to keep you down no matter what you do, these victims are told, working hard and cultivating personal excellence are futile and imperceptible acts of rebellion in which it is pointless to engage.
In an article for the Atlantic, Melinda Anderson, a proponent of this progressive view, argues that the “myth of meritocracy hurts kids of color.” Believing that hard work, motivation, and grit is a pathway to success, she says, “can lead disadvantaged adolescents to act out and engage in risky behavior,” since these students cannot square the rosy portrait of a meritocratic society with their status as victims of inequitable treatment. To support this claim, Anderson cites a recent study showing that sixth-graders who more strongly endorsed the “American dream” and the notion of America as the land of opportunity “reported [having] lower self-esteem and [engaging in] more risky behaviors” during the subsequent year.
But as Anderson readily admits, the study also reported that “self-esteem was high and risky behavior was rare” among these students when they identified more strongly with meritocratic values. As these students came to see themselves as victims of unfair treatment by the fundamental institutions of society, however, only then did their behavior take a turn for the worse. The cause of this change lies not in these students’ prior belief in the American dream and the value of hard work, but in their rejection of meritocratic values in view of what they have come to believe—that is to say, what they have been taught—about their society: namely, that its institutions are irreparably flawed and its inequalities impossible to surmount. In other words, only by denying his own powers—his self-ownership and capacity for free choice—can a person accept that his society has sought and succeeded to render him powerless.
Many of my peers have embraced this view and have resigned themselves to a reality of unrelenting institutional oppression. Seeing their agency within such an unjust system as limited or altogether meaningless, many have settled for mediocrity. They seek community with others who feel as marginalized as themselves and bemoan their shared struggle; after all, what else could they do? What would be the point of striving for individual success against insuperable forces? When every personal effort is bound to be foiled by a vast institutional conspiracy, why seek or strive at all?
Embracing powerlessness is not empowering. It is soul-shattering. It reduces human agency to nothing, and it makes its victims even more pliant before the systems of oppression they blame for their circumstances. If we truly seek to elevate the marginalized, we must reject this dystopian falsehood and affirm the power of human agency.
It is true that life is not fair. In this country and in many others, some have it better than others. The ladder of opportunity is missing many rungs; there is no doubt about that. But inequities are no basis for giving up altogether. Vast sums of money, powerful connections, and white skin are not required to play the game of life. Perhaps it is more difficult without them. But as the countless stories of Americans of every race and income achieving great things and providing a comfortable life for their families attest, one can succeed even when the odds are stacked against her.
Unjust and unfair the odds may be, but surrender is no redress. To overcome imperfect, even deeply flawed institutions, one must believe in her own power and then pursue the life she wants, yielding for no one and stopping at nothing until her greatest dreams are made reality. Nothing less will do.
Matthew Reade is the editor-in-chief of the Claremont Independent.