Ta-Nehisi Coates: The myth of meritocracy

Let me tell you about the worst thing I ever did to my son. When he was 4, I took him to a small basement apartment in a Manhattanbrownstone. I then paid a man to give my son an intelligence test.

The test was an attempt to deliver my son from the chaos of "normal" public school in my adopted hometown of Harlem into a gifted-and-talented program on the tony Upper West Side. My son performed pretty abominably. This did not shake me, as I was not very confident in how well I would have done had I been confronted at age 4 with an "intelligence test." Back then my interests were oatmeal cookies, picture books and the Fantastic Four cartoon, in no particular order. What did shake me, and echoes through the day, is the fact that I'd actually participated.


It was not simply the act of testing (I tested my way into gifted-and-talented as a third-grader) so much as the fact that you have to effectively pay for the chance of admission to a publicly subsidized school. There was a waiver offered for the poor, but the waiver involved grappling with paperwork and the vagaries of the largest department of education in the country. Later I learned that it was customary for parents, trying to get their kids into G&T;, to not only pay the fee but pay for test prep.

I consider taking my son to that test the "worst thing" I've done as a parent because it felt wrong before I did it. In my gut, I knew there was something disturbing about it, but I went anyway. I was a young parent. But I should have known better.


New York has since changed, and centralized its requirements, and districts are no longer allowed to enact such byzantine measures. But prepping 4-year-old children for testing still remains de rigueur among the fashionable classes of the city. The result has been a sudden ballooning of kindergartners eligible for G&T.; New York experienced a 22 percent increase last year, and more than half of the prospective kindergartners in the wealthy areas of Manhattan scored in the 90th percentile of the test. Perhaps brainpower truly accrues among the elite. Or perhaps, increasingly, the elite are finding ways to accrue power of a different kind.

The concentration of that particular species of power, a deep knowledge of how the machinery of social advancement works, is in part the subject of Chris Hayes' stunning polemic, "Twilight of The Elites." Hayes' book is the rare tome that originates from a political home (the left) and yet actually challenges assumptions that undergird the dominant logic in both political parties. This is not mealy-mouthed centrism. It is a substantive critique of the underlying logic of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney -- the logic of meritocracy.

In Mr. Hayes' rendition, we like to tell ourselves that we live in a world where entrance of the elite is earned by sheer merit -- hard work and talent -- when invisible hands play a larger role in social advancement than we would like to admit. Mr. Hayes argues that a pure, self-replicating meritocracy is a myth that must always devolve into oligarchy. Thus, allegedly non-biased, objective, presumably meritocratic systems devolve into a test of who can afford prep materials.

The divide is not merely over what children attend what schools but over how the crimes of the powerless are so often more harshly punished then the crimes of the powerful. Mr. Hayes, comparing the relatively light sanctions doled out to those who brought us to the brink of financial collapse with how we punish drug users, notes the implicit contradiction and the trouble it visits upon our country: "We cannot have a just society that applies the principle of accountability to the powerless and the principle of forgiveness to the powerful. This is the America in which we currently reside."

One thing that makes the trappings of the American Dream so enticing is the fact that we all know people who defy the odds, whose lives stand in contrast to what the structural criticism of people like Mr. Hayes imply. My own father worked his way up out of gripping poverty and was ultimately able to send all of his children to college. I am the product of that investment, and last year I used it to pull my son out of public school and place him in a private institution. There, he will likely learn more about the levers behind America than I or his grandfather knew. Along the way I have tried to instill in him the idea that this knowledge has very little to do with intelligence or hard work. He has benefited from something more than his merits.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Baltimore native, is a writer and senior editor for The Atlantic and its website. His blog can be found at