The Meritocracy Myth
A Dollars & Sense interview with Lani Guinier
This article is from the January/February 2006 issue of Dollars and Sense: The
Magazine of Economic Justice available at
Lani Guinier became a household name in 1993 when Bill Clinton appointed her to
head the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department and then, under pressure from
conservatives, withdrew her nomination without a confirmation hearing. Guinier is
currently the Bennett Boskey Professor of Law at Harvard University where, in 1998,
she became the first black woman to be tenured at the law school.
Guinier has authored and co-authored numerous books including, most recently, The
Miner's Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy (2002,
with Gerald Torres); and Who's Qualified?: A New Democracy Forum on Creating
Equal Opportunity in School and Jobs (2001).
Guinier's latest book, Meritocracy Inc.: How Wealth Became Merit, Class Became
Race, and College Education Became a Gift from the Poor to the Rich, will be
published in 2007. This past summer, she offered a glimpse of her upcoming book in
this interview with D&S intern Rebecca Parrish.
Rebecca Parrish: What is meritocracy? What is the difference between the
conventional understanding and the way you are using the term in Meritocracy, Inc.?
Lani Guinier: The conventional understanding of meritocracy is that it is a system for
awarding or allocating scarce resources to those who most deserve them. The idea
behind meritocracy is that people should achieve status or realize the promise of
upward mobility based on their individual talent or individual effort. It is conceived as a
repudiation of systems like aristocracy where individuals inherit their social status.
I am arguing that many of the criteria we associate with individual talent and effort do
not measure the individual in isolation but rather parallel the phenomena associated
with aristocracy; what we're call