One of the hardest ideals for me to give up on in all of my life has been the idea of meritocracy. Even when I couldn’t spell the word, much less define it or use it in a sentence, I believed in this ideal. It was the driving force behind my educational progression from the middle of fourth grade in January ’79 until I finished my doctorate in May ’97. The meritocratic ideal even guided me in my career, in both academic and in the nonprofit world. Only to realize by the end of ’09 what I suspected, but ignored, for many years. My ideal of a meritocracy is shared by only a precious few, and the rest give lip service to it before wiping it off their mouths, concealing their split lips and forked tongue with nepotism instead.
Being the historian I am — whom people like Jelani Cobb joked about on Twitter as a curse — I am programmed to look back at situations in my own life to look for root causes, to understand what I can do to not repeat my own mistakes, my not-so-well-planned decisions. I’ve thought about my advisor Joe Trotter and my dissertation committee of Trotter, Dan Resnick (husband of education researcher Lauren Resnick) and Bruce Anthony Jones. The biggest mistake I made was in putting this hodgepodge committee of a HNIC advisor, racial determinist and closeted wanderer together to help guide me through my dissertation and then into my first postdoctoral job.
Of course, I didn’t know enough about these men to describe them this way, certainly not until I’d graduated and couldn’t find full-time work for more than two years. The signs, though, were there. Trotter’s unwillingness to recommend me for any job before my completed first draft of my dissertation was really complete (it took me two weeks to revise my dissertation from first to final draft). Resnick calling my dissertation writing “journalistic” and saying that my nearly 2,000 endnotes and thirty pages of sources was “insufficient.” Bruce pulling back on his schedule with me even before taking the job at University of Missouri at Columbia in July ’96.
None of this had anything to with my work. It was about me, whether I as a twenty-six year-old had suffered enough, had gone through enough humiliation, to earn a simple letter of recommendation for a job. When Trotter finally decided it was time to write me a letter of recommendation, it was December ’96, and the job was University of Nebraska-Omaha, “subject to budget considerations,” meaning that it could (and it did) easily fall through. Resnick flat-out refused to share anything he wanted to write about me, with all his “confidentiality” concerns, while I wrote all my letters for myself for Bruce. It was a disaster, and none of it had anything to do with the quality of my work as a historian, educator, or academic writer.
The work I ended up getting after Carnegie Mellon was the result of my dissertation, my teaching experiences, and my networking. The idea that I’d earned my spot, though, was still lacking in the places in which I worked. Particularly at Presidential Classroom, where I was the token highly-educated Negro on staff, and working at Academy for Educational Development with the New Voices Fellowship Program. In both cases, I had bosses whose racial biases only became clear once I began working with them. The then executive director Jay Wickliff never cared about the quality of my work or my degrees. Wickliff’s only concern was that I should keep my mouth shut when he acted or spoke in a racist manner.
My immediate supervisor Ken, on the other hand, wanted all the credit for work I did under him, except in cases when he deemed my methods “not diplomatic enough.” Even before his bipolar disorder led him to a psychological breakdown, Ken regularly accused me of gunning for his position, sometimes turning red whenever he heard about my latest publication, teaching assignment or conference presentation. I had to fight to keep my job and to move on within AED in those final months of ’03 and early ’04, a fight that had zero to do with merit.
I say all this because the one thing that every one of these folks had in common is their lip service to the belief that hard work and results are the keys to success and career advancement. Yet for every one of them, the merit that I had earned didn’t matter. My relative youth, my age, my race, my heterosexual orientation, even my achievements, either scared them or gave them reason to have contempt for me.
I say all of this because in the past eleven years, I have been very careful about the company I keep, about the mentors I seek, about the friends I make, personally and professionally. I went from not trusting anyone as a preteen and teenager to trusting a few too many folks in my twenties and early thirties. All because I believed that my hard working nature and talent mattered more than anything else. What has always mattered more is who you know, especially in high places like academia and with large nonprofits and foundations. So, please, please, please be careful about the supposedly great people you meet. Many of them aren’t so great at all.
That’s why the idea that academia is a place full of progressive leftists is ridiculous. Yes, people like Dick Oestreicher, Wendy Goldman, Joe Trotter and so many others wrote and talked about progressive movements and ideals while I was their student. But fundamentally, they could’ve cared less about the actual human beings they worked with and advised, particularly my Black ass. Their ideals stopped the moment they ended their talk at a conference or wrote the last sentence of a particular book. They only cared about people that they could shape and mold into their own image. And that’s not meritocracy. That’s the ultimate form of nepotism.