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Noem Trying to Insulate “Hard Work Ethic” from Racial Critique

Included in both of Governor Kristi Noem’s now somewhat watered-down bills purporting to fight “critical race theory” and “political indoctrination” is one thought Noem deems “divisive” and thus unteachable:

Meritocracy or traits such as hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex [House Bill 1012 Section 1(7) and House Bill 1337 Section 1(7), both as amended by House Education, 2022.02.09].

Before we analyze this specific idea, we should note that if the state has any business banning ideas from schools—and that alone is a big, hairy if—the state must demonstrate that promoting the idea will do more harm to public welfare than banning discussion of the idea will do to free speech and other basic rights.

I’m comfortable saying the state has an interest in preventing schools from promoting factually incorrect ideas. We can’t have teachers telling kids that the Nazis won World War II, that the earth has infinite supplies of fossil fuels, or that face masks cause carbon dioxide poisoning and don’t reduce the spread of contagious diseases. Instilling such factually incorrect ideas produces misinformed citizens who cannot respond appropriately or effectively to real-world conditions.

But is the claim that meritocracy or “hard work ethic” are racist or sexist or were created by white men to oppress women and racial minorities factually incorrect?

When Max Weber formulated the Protestant work ethic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he was trying to explain differences in economic outcomes between Germans and Poles as results of “racial differences” and used that thinking to promote “stronger Germanisation of the eastern parts of Germany.” And we all know how twentieth-century German nationalism turned out.

There’s more obvious evidence that the Protestant work ethic is factually incorrect: slaves worked really hard in America for 250 years and never got ahead. Abraham Lincoln and a bloody Civil War emancipated those slaves, and those slaves and their descendants have worked pretty hard for civil rights ever since, yet they still haven’t achieved basic equality in education, the economy, and elections. Minorities have to work twice as hard to get half as far because they must overcome racist prejudices and other obstacles that never impede white workers’ progress. Meanwhile, white guys like Donald Trump who have never done an honest day’s labor enjoy all sorts of wealth and power, thanks to institutional favoritism.

The Protestant work ethic isn’t even consistently Protestant. Lutheran theology says we are saved by grace, not works. Conflating hard work and any resulting material gain with signs of God’s favor—not to mention viewing poverty and suffering and God’s just punishment for sloth and washing one’s hands of any obligation redress poverty and suffering and their root causes—is a recent capitalist co-optation of Christianity that gets Luther and Jesus flat wrong.

Many institutional factors reduce the effectiveness of individual hard work. The idea that people can get ahead by hard work alone—and the inimical contrapositive, that people who aren’t getting ahead aren’t working hard and thus deserve their poor outcomes—diverts even well-meaning citizens from inquiring into systemic obstacles to equality and prosperity. Thus, when those systemic obstacles include racism and sexism, and when the idea of the “work ethic” prevents us from talking about and carrying out solutions to systemic racism and sexism, one can reasonably argue that the idea of the “work ethic” props up racism and sexism and prolongs the oppression of minorities and women.

That notion understandably stirs debate. But Noem’s HB 1012 and HB 1337, bills seeking to ban “divisive concepts” from our curricula attempts to declare that debate over and won for her side without allowing teachers and students and ultimately the community at large to have that debate. Perhaps she fears that if we have that debate, people might realize that the facts of history and current events are not on her side.


  1. larry kurtz 2022-02-13 10:59

    Mrs. Noem doesn’t write her own material; it’s generated by her political campaign. Like Trump she’s using her sullied pulpit to milk the prosperity gospel for every penny she can hustle.

    Unless she’s outed or cracks from the stress Trump is her petard to be hoist upon.

  2. Donald Pay 2022-02-13 16:55

    Meritocracy begins with some assumptions and practices, some of which may be racist, some of which may not. Who determines merit? How does someone determine who has more merit than others? Can any merit system be corrupted? Does someone deserve that merit? Does merit confer resources? Does merit depend on a system where past racial discrimination has harmed some and not others? There are a whole list of assumption and questions. If you don’t look at the specifics of a particular meritocratic system, you have no way to make the statement that aren’t “racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex….”

    We all want qualified health professionals to provide our health care? Or do we? A lot of people, including Noem, are taking advise from pretty sketchy non-professional fraudsters with no medical degree and sidelining meritocracy. Did Noem honor the meritocracy when she fired the highly qualified woman who oversaw property appraisals for not rubberstamping her daughter’s application to be an appraiser? If we believe in meritocracy only so that “the other” can be excluded, while “my daughter” can get a paper participation trophy, is that meritocracy?

    In the past, we’ve had so-called meritocratic tests to see who can vote and who can’t. As those systems were practiced, they were found to be racially discriminatory.

    Does what Noem do count as “hard work?” I don’t think so. Sitting in meetings and going to cocktail parties to shake down high-rollers isn’t my idea of hard work. Yammering on in ignorant fashion seems to be pretty common to everyone, but particularly to those who don’t do a goddamn thing. Is it hard work to put on makeup, porn lips and lie on Fox News? Hardly.

  3. Sion G. Hanson 2022-02-13 18:42

    Exactly, Donald Pay. Atlas Shrugged has come to be. The people that produce nothing, and pat each other on the back are now making the rules and hurdles for the people that keep the world turning.

  4. Mark Anderson 2022-02-13 19:53

    Well Cory, Martin Luther claimed he kept the devil away with his farts. Maybe Kristi could try that. A class in farting would be fruitful for South Dakota students and popular. A way of working religious ideas into school.

  5. grudznick 2022-02-13 20:27

    Mr. Anderson, there is no keeping the Devil away. Not even your sweet poofs could do that.

    The Devil will get his due. Just sayin…

  6. DaveFN 2022-02-13 20:39

    That’s a big topic, Cory. I doubt if Noem has any idea how big and polyvalent the word and its root “merit” actually are, nor the variety of discourses or populations that utilize the words.

    If meritocracy means “the holding of power by people selected on the basis of their ability,” we appear to see little of this in South Dakota. Decisions at multiple levels of organizations in this State have little to nothing to do with ability nor with the quality of the thought process behind them. They are instead impositions from the top-down of various canned agendas by some of the least qualified individuals — depending on one’s criteria of “qualified.”

    If meritocracy is contrasted with a system such as hereditary aristocracy in which one’s social position is determined by the lottery of birth, as much as we say we like a meritocratic system, the possibility exists that the latter can nonetheless be more responsive than the former — depending on the ‘merit’ or quality of the leadership involved and the criteria by which merit and quality are developed.

    Michael Sandel has a nice piece, “The Myth of Meritocracy,” regarding meritocracy in higher education:

    “If this familiar view is right [that ‘students should be admitted to college based on merit’ and ‘that those who get in based on merit have earned their admission and deserve the benefits that flow from it’] then the problem with meritocracy is not with the principle but with our failure to live up to it. Political argument between conservatives and liberals bears this out. Our public debates are not about meritocracy itself but about how to achieve it. Conservatives argue, for example, that affirmative action policies that consider race and ethnicity as factors in admission amount to a betrayal of merit-based admission; liberals defend affirmative action as a way of remedying persisting unfairness and argue that a true meritocracy can be achieved only by leveling the playing field between the privileged and the disadvantaged.

    But this debate overlooks the possibility that the problem with meritocracy runs deeper.”

    What is validated as meritocracy and meritorious, what is privileged, varies greatly from population to population if not from individual to individual. If Noem wants meritocracy she is going to have to welcome all manner of contested claims from various stakeholders as to what is meritorious. I don’t see this happening. “Meritocracy” for Noem occludes the numerous hidden factors that got the top-dogs where they are.

    “Most people don’t just think the world should be run meritocratically, they think it is meritocratic.”

  7. All Mammal 2022-02-13 20:54

    If the right individual got the guvvy in the right situation at the right time while tippin back a flask with brown liquor, and kicked this dope flow in her ear; it may convince Mrs. Noem that with the infinite choices in the universe, she can choose anything to be so she should pick again.

    Of all the amazing things to choose to be, please don’t choose being a …basic mean girl.

    Bending two ears to this song won’t be a waste of time. Treat the mind like a parachute, Mrs. Governor.

  8. M 2022-02-14 05:58

    Will Republicans burn text books next? How about the dictionary? Maybe Noem can pull a Trump and use a Sharpie to cross out concepts and ideas she doesn’t like and/or doesn’t understand. Why introduce a bill that wastes time and resources when she can just use an executive order or direct the Secretary of Education to use the Sharpie?

  9. larry kurtz 2022-02-14 11:58

    Mrs. Noem is hoeing in the cash gland over tryst so she will say anything to turn every trick into a payoff.

    She’has another pole dancing gig in Jackson Hole later this week.

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