Meritocracies purport to discern and reward “merit,” a decidedly intrinsic personal quality — but “intrinsic” qualities such as “intellectual facility” and “stubborn persistence” only “seem neutral to class,” Stevens maintains. In reality, young people blessed with the right kinds of families and social environments are far better positioned to acquire, cultivate, and display such attributes. Some of the resulting advantages, such as tutoring or the availability of Advanced Placement courses, are easily identified. The more important ones are harder to identify, much less replicate — and the most important is, in Karen Kipple’s description, a family that cares about its kids and encourages them. The laundering Stevens deplores is an acquired obliviousness to all these factors, a tacit agreement to deny privilege’s existence while perpetuating it. “Merit” is also a verb, a synonym of “deserve.” Those who have merit do merit the prestige, comfort, and safety they attain.
It turns out that “social justice” amounts to noblesse oblige, simultaneously strengthening the obligations and social status of our meritocracy’s credentialed gentry. Literary scholar William Deresiewicz, a self-described democratic socialist, says that the rise of political correctness means that privilege laundering pervades the entire college experience, not just the admissions process. The ultimate purpose of political correctness, he contends, is to “flatter” the elite rather than dismantle it. In effect, socioeconomically advantaged students, professors, and administrators use political correctness to “alibi or erase their privilege,” to “tell themselves that they are . . . part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem.” The social-justice warriors’ stridency belies, even to themselves, the fact that their aims are so limited.