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Wendell Nii Laryea Adjetey is the W. L. Mackenzie King postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at Harvard University.

In North America, the meritocracy mantra – the notion that society should distribute (scarce) resources and power according to one’s talents and intelligence and nothing else – is, without surprise, popular among those who already have an upper hand: elites, the wealthy and individuals who fear that minorities might displace them.

However, in a society in which some people inherit wealth and status, and where this competitive advantage translates to power and access, “merit” is vapid. Imagine running the 100-metre dash in record time but, in actuality, starting the race at the 70-metre mark and blaming others for not running as fast. For this reason, those of us who had to fight and claw our way up from the most improbable of circumstances are put off by the constant chatter of meritocracy.

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News on March 12 of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into college admissions at elite schools further discredited the meritocracy illusion. Dubbed Operation Varsity Blues, the biggest-ever college admissions scandal under federal prosecution has charged 50 individuals for bribery, racketeering conspiracy, money laundering and other crimes.

From 2011 to 2018, parents allegedly paid a for-profit consultancy US$25-million to help secure admissions for their children at elite postsecondary institutions. The elaborate scheme required the parents to pay college preparatory organizations to help their children cheat on entrance exams. They also bribed coaches to recruit their kids as athletes – even if they were not; lead prosecutor Andrew Lelling alleged that the consultancy “helped parents take staged photographs of their children engaged in particular sports.”

Mr. Lelling described the parents as “a catalogue of wealth and privilege,” some of whom are celebrities and chief executive officers of private and public companies.

On average, parents paid US$250,000 to US$400,000 a child. Some paid the consultancy as much as US$6.5-million.

Selective schools such as Georgetown, Stanford and UCLA, among others, have been implicated; so, too, has my alma mater, Yale, from which I earned three degrees, including my doctorate.

After Tuesday’s news conference, Yale’s president sent an e-mail to the university community stating that the DOJ “believes that Yale has been the victim of a crime perpetrated by a former coach.” An applicant’s parents allegedly agreed to pay US$1.2-million to secure a spot at Yale via the women’s soccer team.

Although the DOJ has not charged any postsecondary institution or students, the implications of this case are far-reaching. In the United States, the cutthroat nature of college admissions and the zero-sum mentality of parents and students who erroneously believe that future success is predicated on attending a particular school create scapegoats out of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The most flagrant, widespread belief in college admissions is that African-Americans at elite schools matriculate not because of merit but through affirmative action. This stereotype is grossly misguided and categorically racist. Besides, if any demographic in U.S. society is deserving of preferential treatment, it should be those whose kinfolk endured enslavement, racial terrorism and second-class citizenship.

So bizarre is the scapegoating that a group of renegade students filed a federal lawsuit in 2018, alleging that Harvard’s consideration of race as a small but important factor in admissions puts some Asian-American students at a disadvantage to the benefit of African-Americans.

This fevered hysteria over postsecondary admissions is not the Canadian way. Our robust public colleges and universities remain relatively accessible. McGill, one of our premier institutions and a magnet for smart, ambitious undergraduates from the United States, notes on its website that it does not interview prospective students or consider extracurricular activities, recommendation letters or legacy – the consideration given to (wealthy) students whose parents or grandparents attended the same institution. These practices are common at selective U.S. schools.

We have heard much about the rule of law lately. It is true that the legitimacy of our democracy depends on it. The prosperity and cohesion of our country also depend on social mobility. We cannot tolerate a society that vilifies the poor and downtrodden as lazy or without merit, yet turns a blind eye to nepotism and other forms of corruption, allowing complacency to create a climate in which capital corrodes our institutions and our most fundamental values of fairness and equality.

Because my siblings and I are the first in our family to graduate from high school, I am acutely aware that it is a privilege, not a right, to attend a postsecondary institution, let alone an elite one. To keep the wolves at bay and social discontent at a minimum, we must work constantly to ensure that hereditary status and other unearned privileges do not undermine the confidence that the middle class and working poor have in societal institutions.

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