The myth of settler meritocracy

A photo of a Saskatchewan highway leading into the horizon.
Just like the road to opportunities, not everyone on this road is in the same car. Masterhatch via Wikimedia Commons

Despite glaring problems, this perspective is still glorified 

In 2017 reports circulated stating the Trump administration’s intent to investigate affirmative action admissions in higher education. As of June 29, 2023 (years after the Trump administration) affirmative action has ended in several universities within the United States.  

The ruling by the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action admissions at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The Court’s six justice conservative majority states that schools had discriminated against White and Asian American applicants by using race conscious policies that disproportionately benefited students from under-represented background. Now, President Joe Biden spoke against the court ruling saying “I know today’s court decisions are a severe disappointment to so many people, including me. But we cannot let this decision be a permanent setback for the country. We need to keep the doors open to possibilities.”  

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson further commented on the ruling for the university of North Carolina by stating: “with let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.” More opposing arguments came from the conservative majority Justice Brown Jackson who believes there is nothing in the text of the 14th amendment that prohibits racially conscious measures to admissions and that affirmative action policies are of benefit to all students.  

Dr. Michele Moses and Dr. Laura Dudley Jenkins, who have been researching affirmative action across the globe, say that about one quarter of countries in the world have some sort of affirmative action policy or practice for student admissions to higher education, many of which have emerged over the last 25 years.  

The U.S. higher education affirmative action’s policies have been in place since 1978, however, they are not the oldest; India’s policy for lower-caste students is among the oldest. Moreover, South Africa has many and varied affirmative action programs that not only seek to admit underrepresented students but provide mentoring to facilitate students’ success. In Brazil, the government has been developing affirmative action programs in some of its most prestigious public universities. The issue is often framed as a human rights concern and social justice issue. The Brazilian government stated the introduction of affirmative action programs as the “right thing to do” after decades of denying racial inequalities within the country. 

Affirmative action in higher education admissions refers to a set of practices or policies that consider the social locations of students who are impacted by increased or additional barriers in accessing higher education. Critics of affirmative action often cite the ways such programs supposedly violate the American principle of meritocracy, or the belief that people can go as far as their talent and ambition can take them. However, meritocracy assumes that systems, schools, and other institutions judge people based on merit alone.  

Filmmaker and researcher Fabiola Cineas explores the myth of meritocracy through her short film “Is Meritocracy a Myth?” The film demonstrates that the main tenants of meritocracy are faulty and that it’s simply untrue to claim that equal opportunity exists when the socio-economic landscape of today is marked by the ongoing legacy of racism, class division, and settler colonialism. Rather, meritocracy obscures these ongoing systems of dominance, their influence in evaluation, and creates a narrative of deservedness based on supposed merit. 

Meritocracy is not a strictly American narrative. In fact, it is deeply entrenched in narratives of settling the Canadian prairies as well. In her writing, Dr. Jenn Bergen suggests Saskatchewan provides a perfect example of this through the history of land allocations and resources and “the subsequent justification for this unequal system through the meritocratic discourse of ‘work hard and you will succeed’ in the education system.”  

As part of the larger incentivization of agricultural activity, land division and use in Saskatchewan was given exclusively to White settlers and homesteaders to encourage those of “British descent” to take residency within the province. Up until the 1930s the federal government controlled the land division under the Dominion Lands Act and allowed settlers to obtain use of a160-acre homestead for a $10 fee or purchase outright at $3 an acre. At the same time, structural barriers were erected to dissuade people of color from accessing land divisions.  

Education in the province has had a central role in upholding these narratives of settler meritocracy by perpetuating the ‘work hard’ discourse of settlement. Bergen points to how presently teachers in Saskatchewan continue to assert colonial ideas about meritocracy and, in doing so, are reinscribing racism and white settler dominance within classrooms. Moreover, ideas around ‘color blind’ teaching is often used as justification not to engage with the necessary work of unpacking the impacts of racism and settler colonialism within classrooms. In circumstances in which teachers do address racism, the context is often that it exists only in individualized acts of hatred, thereby making it out to not be a systemic issue. This affirms the meritocratic idea that individuals are at the heart of their own success and failures.  

Although the rulings to end affirmative action in several American universities might seem like unlikely events in the so-called benevolent and multicultural country of Canada, we must remain attentive to the ways meritocracy informs and impacts our education systems at home. Settler meritocracy holds that those who are successful are assumed to have worked hard for what they have, and those who are unsuccessful are assumed to have character flaws resulting in their failure. Essentially, these are similar streams of thought that have led to the dissolution of affirmative action in the states and informed Canadian settler colonialism.  

Unless we can unpack and disrupt meritocracy as a way of addressing settler colonialism, racism, and systemic inequity, this damaging myth will continue in classrooms and school admission, at home and beyond. 


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