On American Meritocracy

Middle School students just completed mini-courses, a whirlwind week of taking classes that speak to their passions and interests or that provide them with an introduction to new topics of study.

A group of students and teachers met daily to read and discuss Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, last year's nonfiction National Book Award winner. Framed as a letter to the author's teenaged son, the book is part memoir and part meditation on the origins, political purposes, and ongoing effects of racism in the United States. While these topics are intellectually challenging, Coates's unflinching descriptions of the violence racism brings upon black bodies force readers to feel rather than just think about its effects. The text also presents particular challenges to white readers, asking them to both question "the Dream" of American meritocracy and consider how their racial identity has been predicated upon the oppression of nonwhite people throughout American history. Our conversations were candid and difficult, but the growth in understanding over the course of the week was immense, as evidenced by the student responses below.

"I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege. More specifically, my privilege. How much I have, what forms it can take, and what privileges that other people have. I am a normal, white, straight guy. The only things that I am not really privileged in would be my age and my religion. The religion part (I’m Jewish) doesn’t play much of a role in terms of privilege because no one knows I’m Jewish unless I tell them. I was thinking about all of this last night, and I came to the conclusion that I am basically living “the Dream” in a bubble. I would like to think that I know what’s up in the world, but I don’t. I know what up in my world. I’ve never been stopped by a cop, never been hungry, never felt like an outsider. I cannot imagine living in the world that Coates describes, and oddly, I feel kind of responsible for letting [that world] happen."

"As I’m exiting this mini-course, I’m realizing just how powerful this book is. In third grade, when I learned about slavery and civil rights, there was always a divide, an uncrossable abyss between me and the injustice I was learning about. I am and was white, my teachers were white, and most of my classmates were white. I regarded the racist America of the past and present the same way that 7th grader Ta-Nehisi Coates regarded France -- it was undoubtedly a real thing, but it was never something I thought I would experience. This book is so uniquely powerful because it is a letter to his son. It is powerful because it forces you to receive these personal accounts of living in this time, it forces you to accept them because they are written to you. Although the book is technically a letter to his son, it is in the second person and feels as though he is writing to you. I will sum up the last three sentences more concisely: reading the book puts you in the shoes of the son (there is no way to separate this) and that makes what he is saying infinitely more important. This book served as a sort of bridge. It didn’t take me across the abyss, but it took me far enough to hear the voices on the other side."

Thank you to all the students, parents, administrators, and teachers who contributed to the success of this valuable course.