Merit-hypocrisy in the Air

April 18, 2015

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via

Meritocracy cartoon, October 29, 2010 (Josh C. Lyman via

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.

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (

Aaron Eckhart as main character in movie I, Frankenstein (2014), August 12, 2013. (

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.

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (

Dixie Biggs, Lip Service teapot, April 19, 2015. (

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.

Dairy Queens, Dick Oestreicher and Race

February 1, 2011

Dairy Queen Sign, Near Frankstown Road, Penn Hills (outside of Pittsburgh, PA), June 14, 2005. Shawn Wall. Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright law because there is no attempt to distribute or alter, and this photo is only being used for illustrative purposes.

Black History Month is upon us once again. But instead of the same tired discussion of Carter G. Woodson, MLK or the meaning (or lack thereof) of this month, I’m telling a story that will (hopefully) dredge up issues for many of you.

It was the last Tuesday in October ’92. I was a student in Dick Oestreicher’s US General Field 2 graduate seminar in the history department at the University of Pittsburgh. The topic for our discussion this day

Otis Redding Album Cover, January 31, 2011. Unknown. This photo qualified as fair use under US copyright laws because of its low quality.

was, “Why has black economic mobility, political assimilation, and cultural identity differed from other ethnic groups.” On the surface, it sounded like a good academic discussion to have. But after having to write a fifteen-page analysis on the topic, where I was restricted to William Julius Wilson’s Declining Significance of Race (1978), Thomas Sowell’s Ethnic America (1971), and Kenneth Kusmer’s analysis of race in the context of Black migration to Cleveland (1976), I wasn’t so sure. I made the mistake of being provocative, naming my paper “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” — after the Otis Redding version, and not the Michael Bolton one.

It was a long two-and-a-half hour class. Especially since I was the lone African American in the room talking about race and standing up to the classroom consensus that class was more important than race in the case of the thirty-million-plus people who looked like or had been classified the same as me. I was on the hot seat, arguing that both Sowell and Wilson’s bias was politically conservative in nature, which influenced their analysis of the question of Black progress and lack of such. I also decided that — like so many issues in history — the question of race versus class was an and-both and not an either-or one. That race and class were so intertwined in American culture and history that to separate them would do severe damage to our ability as historians to understand the nature of racism and poverty in American society.

One of my classmates, an over-50 White male, decided at this point to cut off my final point. “You should be grateful, to be able to go to an esteemed institution like the University of Pittsburgh, to be able to sit in that chair and get to earn a Ph.D. If it were thirty years ago, we couldn’t stand in the same Dairy Queen line, right here in Pittsburgh,” the older man said as slowly and as deliberately as someone giving an Oscar acceptance speech. I was amazed, angry, ready to put the man in his place academically. I wanted to verbally take a Dairy Queen triple-scooper and smash it in his stubby nose.

Then my mentally absent professor Dick Oestreicher immediately interrupted, literally positioning himself in the middle of the room to keep me from giving my response. Oestreicher ended class right then and there, dismissing us without even summarizing our discussion or criticizing our allegedly weak academic

Dick Oestreicher, circa 2009

analysis, which he had done in all of the previous weeks.

I was incensed, actually more pissed with Oestreicher than with the bigoted older man. I made sure to stop by Oestreicher’s office the next afternoon after my other grad seminar to find out why he interfered. “You’re going to have to deal with this anyway,” he said while shrugging his shoulders. The following week, I received an A- on my paper, with “Sowell’s well read” as the only comment on my critique of the authors and the undeniably conservative, pro-class and anti-race analysis that the authors provided.

Of my five and a half years in graduate school — and in my two years of grad school at Pitt — it was one of my most unbelievable moments. I wanted to pick Oestreicher up by his mangy hair and show him how some people deal with moments of racism and the people who allow it to continue on their watch. I wanted to tell him that he should stay out of the classroom if he’s too scared to actually teach students.

In the end, I was more patient at twenty-two than I’d probably be about something like this now. I remained academically defiant the rest of the semester, opposed every argument he made whenever he made it. Meanwhile, the bigoted old man had withdrawn from the course in the last month of the semester.

I learned, more than anything else, that many so-called liberal professors were only academic liberals, not actual liberals. Oestreicher in my mind was worse than my hard-ass principal Richard Capozzola at Mount Vernon High School. At least with Capozzola, you knew that he didn’t like anyone who looked like me — meaning young, Black, male, unpopular and poor. With Oestreicher and so many in academia, their liberalism and expressions in support of racial equality were mere scholarly arguments. In reality, people like him would never expect someone like me to have a chance in hell or heaven to become one of their academic peers.

But you know what was the funniest thing of all? I’d never been to a Dairy Queen before.


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