Thought experiment inspired by Chapter 2 of Chris Hayes' awesome book (which you should read, by the way):
Imagine that the bookies in Las Vegas allow...moreThought experiment inspired by Chapter 2 of Chris Hayes' awesome book (which you should read, by the way):
Imagine that the bookies in Las Vegas allowed gamblers to place bets every year on which 5th graders in New York City would test into Hunter College High School, one of the highest ranking public schools in the country. Getting into Hunter is particularly kick-ass because a large percentage of its graduates end up attending elite colleges and universities. To get into the school, students must first score high enough on their fifth-grade standardized tests to take the school’s entrance exam (roughly 3,000 to 4,000 students qualify for the entrance exam each year) and then students must be one of the top 185 scorers on the exam.
Let’s say that all bets would need to be placed by the eve of the fifth-grade standardized test. Bets could be placed on any 5th grade student in NYC and payouts would go to those who placed bets on the 185 students who tested into Hunter. Payouts would be based on the odds Vegas placed on each student. (If you’re familiar with Vegas odds on something like March Madness or the World Cup, teams that are a long shot of winning the championship might have odds at 500,000 to 1 while the favorites might be 3 to 1.) The information about each child available to a gambler would be the race of the student, where in the city he or she lives, the student’s family income, the student’s grade average (Straight A’s, A-, B, etc.), and other pertinent information that might be useful to the gambler’s decision. (I’m not sure how Vegas would gather all of this information but bear with me. This gambling scenario doesn’t need to be plausible.)
Ok, so you’re in Vegas to see Dina Martina or Penn & Teller or whatever, and you decide to place a few bets on some of these NYC kids while you’re there. Let’s say you’ve considered all of the factors and determined that you would need roughly 200-1 odds (i.e. a 200 dollar payout for every dollar wagered) to place a bet on a poor black student from Harlem who has never earned less than an A in school. With that as your baseline, consider what odds you would need to be willing to bet on an upper-class black student from Manhattan who has never earned less than an A in school? Is it fair to assume they would be lower than the odds you needed for the poor student from Harlem? What sort of odds would you need if the upper-middle class A-student from Manhattan were white or Asian? How would the odds for an uber-wealthy white student in Manhattan who occasionally got Bs compare to the odds for the poor black straight-A-student from Harlem? After thinking through various scenarios, who would be the favorites? Who would be the long shots? How would you determine where all of these students fall on the continuum? You need to know all of this to determine where you are going to put your money, right?
In my mind, if you want to make money, one thing you’re not going to do is listen to the crap so many people in America spew about how America is so great because we all have an equal opportunity to succeed and how America is truly a meritocracy where those who work hard are rewarded. Vegas will happily take all of the money you gamble on the hard-working low-income Black and Hispanic kids from Harlem who get straight A’s. To make money on this bet, what you’re going to need to rely on first and foremost are the indicators related to the student’s socioeconomic status. The academic achievement and work ethic of these kids plays a role in your gambling decision but it’s a decidedly smaller one than how much money and how much education mommy and daddy have. It’s not rocket science. Do you know how lucrative it is to be a tutor or test prep company that offers prep classes for the Hunter entrance exam? According to Hayes’ research, NYC parents pay $90 an hour for private tutors and more than $2,500 for a 14-weekend Hunter test prep package. And what about all of the resources that have been available to wealthier children from birth through 5th grade? I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that the kids in Harlem probably didn’t have the same resources and opportunities.
Even though NYC is 25 percent black and 28 percent Hispanic, it’s not surprising that the entering 7th grade class at Hunter in 2009 was 3 percent black and 1 percent Hispanic.
In a truly meritocratic system, all kids would have access to the same resources and opportunities. This, of course, is impossible. There is no level playing field. There never has been and never will be. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try our best to even it out for those who aren’t lucky enough to be born into a family that can afford expensive private tutor lessons and test prep packages. The next time you hear someone (or hear yourself) talk about how everyone in this country already has an equal opportunity and how the government shouldn’t spend money to give unfair advantages to kids from low-income families, I ask you to think about how utterly ridiculous that sounds. If you're so sure about the meritocracy in America, you can go ahead and put all of your money down on the poor kids from Harlem. I’ll take the rich kids from Manhattan every time. Then I’ll use my winnings to ensure that my kids beat out your kids.
In this brilliant book, Chris Hayes develops what he calls The Iron Law of Meritocracy, which 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... Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up." (less)