Washington wished to promote a society that measured the worth of people not by the color of their skin or their class but by their measurable contributions to society. This ideal meritocracy, or society in which merit is the defining attribute of worth, gives equal opportunity to all citizens if they apply themselves to their labor.
This theme is a key aspect of Washington’s perspective on race relations; he felt that if African Americans demonstrated their dedication to excellence and hard work, they would develop quickly as a “civilized” race. Washington believed that merit through labor would erase racial tensions, because white Americans would be forced to admit the value of black Americans in their societal contributions, which would in turn dispel misconceptions of the racial inferiority of blacks held by American society. Washington also believed that ascribing to such a meritocracy could eliminate class injustice, as distinctions would be drawn around merit rather than wealth. This type of philosophy is often referred to as a “bootstraps” philosophy, because it invokes the American trope of pulling oneself up to a higher place in society by one’s bootstraps. In other words, Washington believed in the idea that in American society, if someone works hard, that person has the opportunity to succeed. While there are many critics of this ideology of meritocracy—mostly because it does not necessarily account for racial disadvantages embedded in American political, economic, and social spheres—Washington nevertheless is a part of a long and robust tradition of American thinkers who support and promote the concept of a meritocracy.
Washington’s meritocracy is not based on social status reached but obstacles overcome. Washington admits that as a young man, he held envy towards white boys who had few obstacles in their way of becoming Congressmen, doctors, and lawyers. He felt stifled by his racial identity, and he lamented the large obstacles in the way of the black American. However, he says that after establishing the Tuskegee Institute and becoming an American public figure, his envy for the white man has dissipated. In his perspective, the African American citizen actually has an advantage in American society, because in Washington’s meritocracy, “success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome trying to succeed.” Washington acknowledges that the black citizen has to work harder and encounter more obstacles than the white citizen, but he claims that this distinguishes the black citizen as being able to achieve a greater degree of relative success, which, to Washington, is an honor higher than position or achievement. Washington’s idea of meritocracy, then, is built on progress, not result.
Washington’s meritocracy also denies the presence of luck in finding success. Washington particularly denies that luck had any role in finding the robust funds that he was able to acquire in fundraising for the Tuskegee Institute. He provides this axiom in relation to his fundraising: “Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.” In other words, Tuskegee has earned the money that it has raised through hard work, and whatever success in fundraising that the university has found is a result of its merit, not luck or any outside factors. To Washington, attributing luck to success is demeaning to the hard work and merit of individuals.
Washington does not just suggest that merit is important to social progress, but he also believes that meritocracy is a part of human nature. Washington thinks that all humans value individual merit, regardless of race or class. He even suggests that merit can eclipse racial bias. In his “Atlanta Exposition Address,” Washington claims, “there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found.” Washington goes on to say that visible and tangible evidence of hard work helps to “soften prejudices.” This tenet of Washington’s meritocracy is intimately linked to his views of racial progress, for he believes that African Americans will be racially elevated once they demonstrate their value to society, and that racial prejudice is simply a misconception of white America about the inferiority of the black American. Ultimately Washington feels that merit is a universal value that trumps prejudice of any kind and that will ensure equality for all Americans.
Washington believed deeply in the concept of a meritocracy, and he felt that his own life demonstrated the unlimited potential for any Americans who were willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Born in slavery, working in coal mines, becoming a janitor at the Hampton institute, enrolling in college, and rising to be one of the most influential minds in race relations and education in America, Washington’s experience testified that hard work and personal betterment could help one overcome almost any obstacle. While many other thinkers criticized Washington for downplaying the role that racism—both overt and embedded in the structure of society—played in limiting the success of black people in America, he saw his rise from slavery to prominence as irrefutable evidence of the fairness of living by merit. His measure of worth did not privilege social position and had no room for luck or circumstance, but it raised hard work and labor as the ultimate evidence of individual merit. According to Washington, if merit is accepted as the ultimate measure of man, America can take serious progressive strides to overcome racial prejudice, class inequality, and social harmony.
Meritocracy Quotes in Up From Slavery
The whole machinery of slavery was so constructed as to cause labour, as a rule, to be looked upon as a badge of degradation, of inferiority, Hence labour was something that both races on the slave plantation sought to escape.
The education that I received at Hampton out of the text-books was but a small part of what I learned there...Before the end of the year, I think I began learning that those who are happiest are those who do the most for others. This lesson I have tried to carry with me ever since.
At Hampton I not only learned that it was not a disgrace to labour, but learned to love labour, not alone for its financial value, but for labour’s own sake and for the independence and self-reliance which the ability to do something which the world wants done brings. At that institution I got my first taste what it meant to live a life of unselfishness, my first knowledge of the fact that the happiest individuals are those who do the most to make others useful and happy.
My experience has been that the time to test a true gentleman is to observe him when he is in contact with individuals of a race that is less fortunate than his own. This is illustrated in no better way than by observing the conduct of the old-school type of Southern gentleman when he is in contact with his former slaves or their descendants.
I am glad to add, however, that at the present time, the disposition to vote against the white man merely because he is white is largely disappearing, and the race is learning to vote from principle, for what the voter considers to be for the best interests of both races.
While I was making this Christmas visit, I met an old coloured man who was one of the numerous local preachers, who tried to convince me, from the experience Adam had in the Garden of Eden, that God had cursed all labour, and that, therefore, it was a sin for any man to work. For that reason this man sought to do as little work as possible. He seemed at that time to be supremely happy, because he was living, as he expressed it, through one week that was free from sin.
My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit, no matter under what colour of skin merit is found. I have found, too, that the visible, the tangible, that goes a long ways in softening prejudices.
Some people may say that it was Tuskegee’s good luck that brought to us this gift of fifty thousand dollars. No, it was not luck. It was hard work. Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.
Say what we will, there is something in human nature which we cannot blot out, which makes one man, in the end, recognize and regard merit in another, regardless of colour or race.
I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements of this kind if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life—that is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the high-water mark of pure, unselfish, useful living.