Christopher Hayes | June 6, 2012
This article is adapted from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy , © 2012 by Christopher Hayes and published by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House Inc.
In 1990, at the age of 11, I stood in a line of sixth graders outside an imposing converted armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, nervously anticipating a test that would change my life. I was hoping to gain entrance to Hunter College High School, a public magnet school that runs from grades seven through twelve and admits students from all five boroughs. Each year, between 3,000 and 4,000 students citywide score high enough on their fifth-grade standardized tests to qualify to take Hunter’s entrance exam in the sixth grade; ultimately, only 185 will be offered admission. ...
But the problem with my alma mater is that over time, the mechanisms of meritocracy have broken down. In 1995, when I was a student at Hunter, the student body was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. Not coincidentally, there was no test-prep industry for the Hunter entrance exam. That’s no longer the case. Now, so-called cram schools like Elite Academy in Queens can charge thousands of dollars for after-school and weekend courses where sixth graders memorize vocabulary words and learn advanced math. Meanwhile, in the wealthier precincts of Manhattan, parents can hire $90-an-hour private tutors for one-on-one sessions with their children.
By 2009, Hunter’s demographics were radically different—just 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic, according to the New York Times. With the rise of a sophisticated and expensive test-preparation industry, the means of selecting entrants to Hunter has grown less independent of the social and economic hierarchies in New York at large. The pyramid of merit has come to mirror the pyramid of wealth and cultural capital.
... But this ideal, appealing as it may be, runs up against the reality of what I’ll call the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible. The Principle of Difference will come to overwhelm the Principle of Mobility. Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or to selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies and kin to scramble up. In other words: “Who says meritocracy says oligarchy.”
Consider, for example, the next “meritocracy” that graduates of Hunter encounter. American universities are the central institution of the modern meritocracy, and yet, as Daniel Golden documents in his devastating book The Price of Admission, atop the ostensibly meritocratic architecture of SATs and high school grades is built an entire tower of preference and subsidy for the privileged:
At least one third of the students at elite universities, and at least half at liberal arts colleges, are flagged for preferential treatment in the admissions process. While minorities make up 10 to 15 percent of a typical student body, affluent whites dominate other preferred groups: recruited athletes (10 to 25 percent of students); alumni children, also known as “legacies” (10 to 25 percent); development cases (2 to 5 percent); children of celebrities and politicians (1 to 2 percent); and children of faculty members (1 to 3 percent).
This doesn’t even count the advantages that wealthy children have in terms of private tutors, test prep, and access to expensive private high schools and college counselors. All together, this layered system of preferences for the children of the privileged amounts to, in Golden’s words, “affirmative action for rich white people.”
As has happened at other prestigious city high schools that use only a test for admission, the black and Hispanic population at Hunter has fallen in recent years. In 1995, the entering seventh-grade class was 12 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic, according to state data. This past year, it was 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic; the balance was 47 percent Asian and 41 percent white, with the other 8 percent of students identifying themselves as multiracial. The public school system as a whole is 70 percent black and Hispanic.