Playing the ‘Race Card’: The Myth of Meritocracy

Many children are told that if they work hard at school, they will get a good job, be able to afford nice things and have a good life. For a lot of people, this is the case; but if you are born with darker skin, this form of meritocracy isn’t necessarily a foregone conclusion. At every stage of a black person’s life, there are clear barriers. It is not to say that there aren’t short cuts or side steps people can make to overcome them, but there are significant and systemic barriers all the same.

Black people have been in the UK for centuries, and there are records of black people in the UK in the twelfth century. After the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade, black people had become a more common sight and by the eighteenth century, there were African communities in many slave-trading ports including those around Bristol, Cardiff and Liverpool. Therefore, it is not as if black people are recent migrants to the British Isles. The view that black migrants first came to the UK in 1948, just as the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in Essex erases the centuries of black settlers to the British Isles. Even though the mass migration of black people to Britain has been relatively recent, there have been pockets of black people in the UK for hundreds of years. This article will explain how for a lot of people from racial minorities and especially black people, meritocracy (getting what you deserve based on had work or perceived worthiness) does not exist. 

At School 

The idea of a meritocracy starts early on and is embedded into a child’s frame of reference and psyche. From the school classroom, kids are taught to work hard and behave well. Many children from minority backgrounds are often told by parents and family that they need to work “twice as hard” to achieve the same academic and professional success and stability as their white counterparts. This ‘work twice as hard’ rhetoric is a lesson that minority kids receive early on and often instils the injustice and lack of fairness that minority groups face. By saying this to their children, parents and carers are preparing them to understand that being “as good” as a white counterpart does not always guarantee recognition or success. 

Let’s look at behavioural evaluations of black children in schools across the UK. When looking at the figures for students in pupil referral units, alternative provision academies and AP free schools 27% of students are from BAME backgrounds, compared with 32% in all schools (Parliament UK, 2020). Based on figures from the Department of Education from 2018, the percentage of black pupils in pupil referral units was 7.2% and in state primary schools the percentage is 5.5%, state secondary schools it is 5.8%. So proportionately, black children make up a higher percentage of students in pupil referral units than in mainstream schools. 

Some might think that these figures are due to inherent behavioural issues that are more prevalent in black children. However, this assertion glosses over the idea of unconscious bias and active, covert racism occurs in schools. A report by think tank, The Runnymede Trust in June 2020 highlighted that “racism is deeply embedded in schooling”. The lack of diversity amongst teaching staff suggests that negative racial stereotypes can flourish in these environments as well as biases, which can influence the way children and young people behave. Having interactions that may be negative or inherently biased at such a young age, can set a precedent in later life. Examples of these biases include being profiled to less academic subject areas, being evaluated as having more aggressive or disruptive and being evaluated as less academically able. Research from the DfES (2006) shows that black pupils are disproportionately put in lower sets.

Additionally, during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak and the furore over A-Level and GSCE grades over OFQUAL’s algorithm; the grades chosen after several U-turns were to focus on teachers’ predicted grades. Predicted grades are set by teachers by assessing classroom tests and other assessments from the students. However, these too can be affected by implicit bias and explicit racism. In 2011 a research report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that black applicants had the lowest predicted grade accuracy with only 39.1% compared to their white counterparts who had a 53% grade accuracy. The study also found that black students were most likely to have their grades underpredicted.

This shows that the accuracy of the attainment level of students is not colour blind. The significantly lower rate of grade accuracy for black students can affect what types of universities that they can apply to and careers that are open to them. This adds further evidence to the pervasiveness of systemic racism in UK society. 

After School

After formal education, despite black people having a university entry rate of 41% in the UK, the unemployment rates for January to December 2019 were 8% for black people compared to 3.6% for white people. This suggests that even though black people have higher rates of university admission, something is happening when black and people from other racial groups apply for jobs. 

Research conducted by the TUC in 2016, found that there was a pay disparity by ethnicity even when people had the same educational qualifications. It was found that black graduates were paid 23% less on average in comparison to their white counterparts. The same study found that BME workers with degrees are paid 10 % less on average than white workers and BME workers whose highest qualification were A-levels are paid on average 17% less than their white counterparts. 

BME graduates with a first degree are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than white graduates. BME workers who have HNC/HND qualifications are almost three times as likely to be unemployed than white people. BME workers who have apprenticeship qualifications are 23% less likely to be employed than their white counterparts. According to the TUC paper “a common explanation for the disproportionate levels of unemployment faced by different groups reflects different qualification levels”. However, the TUC, investigation shows that BME workers face higher levels of unemployment than white workers with the same qualifications. 

These studies and findings show the existence of racism and racial bias at the early stages of recruitment and remuneration. This further adds to the idea that parents of black and other minority children communicate, which is having to be twice as good. Having equal qualifications according to the above shows that disparities in pay and employment are still incredibly pervasive.

White workers
BAME workersBlack workers 
 PayPayPay gapPayPay gap
All workers£13.45£12.705.6%£11.7312.8%
GCSE (A* – C equivalent)£10.33£8.9313.6%£9.1511.4%
No qualifications£8.90£8.257.3%£9.00-1.1%
Other qualifications£9.48£8.886.3%£9.252.4%

Table 1: Employees gross hourly pay taken from TUC data

The above data in graph format

One thing that may contribute to higher rates of unemployment amongst BME groups may be happening as early as the application stage of seeking work. An Oxford University study (2017) sent 3,200 applications and CVs to real jobs, both for a variety of roles including software engineering, chefs, marketing and sales assistants. Applicants’ ethnic backgrounds were randomly varied. The findings showed that black Britons and those from Pakistani backgrounds were heavily penalised, facing strong labour market discrimination at levels “unchanged since the 1960s and 1970s.” 

All applicants who were from BME backgrounds were all either British born or had arrived at the age of six and obtained their qualifications in the UK. White Britons received callbacks 24% of the time. For all BME applicants, the callbacks were reduced to 15%. This is despite BME applicants having identical resumes and cover letters, showing that they had to send 60% more applications to receive the same success rate as white British applicants. Those from Pakistani backgrounds had to send 70% more applications and these from middle eastern and Northern African backgrounds had to send 90% more applications to get the same success rate as White British applicants.

In the ‘playground’: a case study of football

These disparities don’t just affect black people in education, sports players also are affected by this lack of meritocracy. In research conducted by Professor Binna Kandola, 25% of professional footballers are from Black and minority backgrounds. Based on this, it would be expected that there would be a similar proportion of captains from non-white backgrounds, but in 2016 only 13% of premiership captains were black or from minority ethnic backgrounds. There is a distinct lack of diversity at the management level also. In the 2016/17 premier league season, not a single manager or assistant manager was from a black or minority ethnic background. In the 2017/2018 season Chris Hughton, Brighton’s manager is from a mixed-black background and is half Ghanaian.

This contrasts to 1895, the then Stalybridge Rovers manager, Arthur Wharton became the first black professional player in the UK. In the history of the premier league, which began in 1992, there have been nine black managers. At present 6 out of 91 premier league and EFL managers or head coaches are from black or minority ethnic backgrounds. These figures paint an interesting picture. If a quarter of professional footballers are BAME but only one black manager existed in the 2017/2018 season, what is happening to BAME players after they retire? Why aren’t they represented more at the management level?

Sol Campbell, who retired from professional football in 2012 and gained 73 caps and two premier league titles with Arsenal-said in 2017 in a Guardian article he was willing to “start at the bottom” to get a management role. In 2014 in his biography he described the FA as institutionally racist. Should a footballer of the calibre of Campbell be willing to start from the bottom to get a management role?

In the board room

This ‘meritocracy’ also doesn’t seem to ring true when we look at other places of work. In the Fortune 500, there are currently 4 Black CEOs. In the history of Fortune 500 companies, there have only two black female CEOs. In FTSE 100 companies, only 6 out of the 100 CEOs were from BAME backgrounds in a report conducted by the consultancy EY. This number rises to 9 when we look at FTSE 250 companies. Additionally, out of the 250 most valuable companies, almost 70% of those who responded reported no ethnic diversity on their boards.

Often when people speak about initiatives to alleviate the obvious inequalities and the misnomer of meritocracy in its application; people tend to feel defensive as if there’s not enough space for everyone. Things like “it isn’t fair to have an internship ONLY for Black/BME people; what about everyone else” “soon we’ll be taken over” “surely if they were good enough, they would get through”. These comments might or might not be said, but they will at least be thought about. The fragility and the privilege that this mindset displays can be dangerous as it removes people’s subjective lived experiences as well as rejecting statistics about systemic and structural inequalities.

Interventions including quotas, affirmative action and the introduction of minority only programmes such as graduate schemes, internships and in work development programmes also might be rejected by majority and minority individuals. This may be because individuals might think that people are only being chosen, to ‘tick a box’ or to ‘fill a quota’ therefore indirectly or directly assuming that the minority person doesn’t deserve to be there, or that they got lucky and are not worthy of their position. This assumption is not only unhealthy, it breeds even more distrust and doubt on the minority person; it also encourages unnecessary focus and pressure on minority people as a whole, a pressure that they must perform, work harder and prove they aren’t just there as a diversity hire. This added pressure and focus can lead some to underperform as the pressure of appearing worth the position can take its toll. Often the individuals who are on such programmes are tested, assessed and scrutinised just as much as everyone else and the selection processes are robust. 


What can we say about all these institutions and experiences? Meritocracy, or the idea that people gain things, are chosen or selected based on their merit is something that is not seen much in society. The idea that if a person works hard or studies hard and they will get what they deserve has been shown in these statistics and their examples that this is not always the case. 

Whether it is black school students being institutionally failed, or black and other minority groups having higher rates of unemployment, underemployment and vastly lower rates of pay and sometimes even recognition; it suggests a lack of fairness and removal of equal opportunity.

What can be done about this is firstly an understanding and recognition of this at a personal, team and organisational level, that ‘the best person for the job, often does not even get a look in. 

How to create a true meritocracy at work

Things like blind recruitment can allow people to ‘get through the door’ but what happens when they are there? What about middle and senior management levels, now representative are they?

  1. Diversity audits. Who have you got in your organisation and what positions are they in? this question will give you a better understanding of what diversity looks like in your organisation. Then if it looks uneven, being able to have a baseline is helpful to assess what could be done and where. 
  2. Analysing pay and appraisal data will enable organisations to understand where disparities are. Ethnicity pay gaps are one of the things that an organisation can use to see if and where differences are. Another thing is to look at the differences in how people’s appraisals are completed in your organisation and how different people have been rated. If there is a universal scoring system, then analysing these scores looking at demographic data can really reveal disparities in manager and teamwork evaluations. 
  3. Listening to minority employees will also support your quantitative data and help develop a more accurate picture of what’s going on. It’s one thing seeing data on paper but hearing people’s experiences of what it’s like to actually work in an organisation helps to understand themes and lived experiences. Getting an external organisation like a consultancy to do this might help people feel comfortable to share without feeling like they will be targeted for speaking their mind afterward. 
  4. Consistent and current diversity and training consulted by external organisations and adapted to the organisational context. This can really bring about a shared understanding about what and how diversity and inclusion manifest in society and the workplace. The reason why external organisations might be better is that there are specialists who are well equipped to design and facilitate workshops in a well-rounded way.
  5. In schools and universities, analyse grades, coursework and exams of minority groups. Understand the impact of stagnant, hard to relate to curriculums. These things can help understand the attainment gap in schools and education establishments.

9 thoughts on “Playing the ‘Race Card’: The Myth of Meritocracy

  1. Hey Grace,

    Thank you for a fab article; none of it is a surprising read but having the statistics shows that what already know to be true is undeniable.

    Have you had any of your posts published in articles with a high readership? You should.




  2. Hi Grace,

    That was a good read and an eye opener. Even though we all are becoming more aware of race issues, having it spelt out like this makes one think about more about how we as minority group bargain and negotiate salaries with employers.

    Well done for this piece 👍👍👍


    1. I think personally for me in my life it was useful to have a dose of reality at a young age. As long as there are safe, supportive and nurturing environments for a child to discuss and process their experiences I think that’s also an important factor too. I also have two other posts In the series as well, the previous two articles so feel free to read them.


  3. Really enjoyed this piece. Very thorough and pretty much left nothing uncovered in your diagnosis. Stats don’t lie!! The education system disguises this fact by spreading the idea that it is solely the ability & effort of the individual which determines the qualifications and the job they get, rather than their class background, and thus individuals end up blaming themselves for their failures


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