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Juggling the contradictions: An exploration of White college students' understanding of meritocracy and racial inequality

Sheri Lyn Schmidt, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This qualitative study investigates the ways in which White college students make sense of meritocracy in relation to racial inequality in the contemporary United States. Through in-depth individual interviews and qualitative methods of analysis, participants reveal their beliefs about how people achieve success in the U.S., their explanations of the economic disparity between Black and White Americans, and their perspectives on meritocracy in contemporary U.S. society. Twenty traditionally-aged White undergraduate college students at a large public University in the Northeast took part in the study. The sample was stratified by gender, year in school and engagement with issues of racism. White students who had experience with issues of racism through academic courses, or who had taken active roles in student organizations that addressed racism were identified as “engaged.” White students who had not been actively involved in such courses or co-curricular activities were identified as “not-engaged.” Based on their gender or year in school, there were no differences in White students' perspectives on either meritocracy or racial inequality. Prior engagement with racism, however, was strongly related to striking differences in White students' perspectives on meritocracy and their explanations for racial inequality. Engaged White students were much more likely than not-engaged White students to espouse a structuralist stratification perspective about both success and racial inequality, and to assert that the United States is not a meritocracy. Most of the not-engaged White students relied on individualist explanations for both the achievement of success and the causes of racial inequality. Of particular note is the way that many not-engaged White students seemed to be involved in a cognitive juggling act, trying to work with the contradictions between their ideology of meritocracy and their awareness of racial discrimination. The findings raise implications about the role that merit and racial ideology play in forming White students' understanding of individual achievement and racial inequality in the United States. The study includes suggestions for new ways of conceptualizing anti-racism teaching to emphasize the role of meritocratic ideology and it suggests future research on developmental processes that may challenge traditionally-aged White undergraduate college students' reliance on merit ideology.

Subject Area

Higher education|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology|Curricula|Teaching

Recommended Citation

Schmidt, Sheri Lyn, "Juggling the contradictions: An exploration of White college students' understanding of meritocracy and racial inequality" (2005). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3179923.