Meritocracy and The Wire

Craig Jerald observes of the fact that Namond, who seemed like the Wire kid least “deserving” of rescue turns out to be the only one who makes it through the minefield:

If America were a true meritocracy, one that rewarded talent — and developed talent for the common good — Duquan would attend an excellent school with a great math teacher, not a rookie who has no idea how to help him, let alone teach him. If it were a true meritocracy, budding and innovative capitalist Randy would be treated like the next Michael Dell, or at least someone who might actually own a store of his own someday. And in a true meritocracy (heck, even just in a halfway rational society) a kid with Michael’s practical smarts and immense leadership skills would be treated as a future business or civic leader — even a future mayor of Baltimore — and educated accordingly.

But for children in West Baltimore, making it has far more to do with luck than with merit. If The Wire is right, it has nothing to do with merit at all. How can we live with that?

It’s a good question. But consider this. Suppose the United States had a school system that wasn’t just non-dysfunctional, but actually almost magical in its properties. Kids who came into this school system with talent and ability lurking under the surface would be catapulted to success, notwithstanding their socioeconomic background or other problems. Randy, Dukie, and Michael all in their different ways become important successful people. And what happens to the others? What happens to people of merely average ability? Worse — what happens to people of less than average ability? What if you’re just dumb? Not anymore crooked or dishonest than anyone else, but less able. Do people like that just sink into the ghetto, into lives of poverty and despair? Is that really justice? Is the problem of the underclass in contemporary America really just that we’ve assigned the wrong people to live that way, and need a better system of sorting the able from the non-able?

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That seems badly wrong to me. Yes, one problem with the condition of the underclass is that it prevents talented underclass children from being able to take full advantage of their talents. Another, deeper problem, however, is that in a prosperous society people simply deserve better living conditions than that. It’s unjust that living conditions of the sort portrayed in the show exist. Unjust that people live in neighborhoods that unsafe and that deprived of basic civic service. Unjust that people — even people without noteworthy talents and abilities — lack the opportunity to obtain a reasonable standard of living through legal means.