Elite schools hold themselves forth as establishments that reward excellence. But brown and Black students are treated as interlopers and beneficiaries of affirmative action, while the white and wealthy buy their way in.
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When the college-admissions scandal known as “Varsity Blues” broke into our interminable news cycle, the reactions ran the gamut. There was dismay at the perpetrators—the famous, the wealthy, the generous. There was outrage at the damage—millions in bribes and forgeries to secure spots at some of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the country. And, of course, in the grand tradition of the internet, there were so many memes. But among the most telling reactions to the scandal were the amusement and sarcasm from those of us buoyed by affirmative action.
After years of hearing the rhetoric of theft and crime applied to our entry into elite academic spaces, it was sweet irony to learn of the indictment of dozens of wealthy and almost-entirely-white parents, coaches, administrators, and advisers for their involvement in years’ long fraud. As students boosted by affirmative action, we had “taken” spots, “dragged down” our peers, and “cut in line” ahead of thousands of suffering (and presumably white) children who could have been there instead of us. All of this recrimination and bitterness had been directed at us while the white and wealthy were committing actual crimes.
In a society that held education as a universal precept, it would be contradictory to use the language of contempt and corruption for both the brown child striving for academic excellence and the white scion stealing by falsehood. But the limited funding we have given education, the exclusivity of our top institutions, the zero-sum nature of class space and the opacity of the admissions process all combine for a reality where education is a finite resource to be disbursed to the “worthy.” In an instant, the former is cast as an interloper and the latter as self-defeating.
It is here, like every other resource in American life, that assumptions about who works hard and what merit looks like have shaped a narrative that equates the crimes of the elite with the aspirations of the downtrodden. Affirmative-action recipients, especially Black students, have watched the historically racist tropes about our intelligence, work ethic and culture morph into arguments that we are unprepared, unworthy, and fundamentally incapable of operating at the levels of the so-called elite. As a Black student, I was there because of my blackness, marked and minimized by it, blessed by the grace of a white administration that didn’t want to look racist. Despite my grades and hard work, I was merely a living emblem of white guilt. Even in my efforts to strive, my agency and my destiny belonged to white people. Often, I heard that my presence through affirmative action was a harm to the academic quality of the institution, a stain on its reputation and an unearned boon that would ultimately morally harm me. It is damaging, we are told, to receive something for nothing.
Yet it is precisely these pernicious and uninspected assumptions about white and wealthy students that completely frame our concept of merit and give the benefit of the doubt to those with resources over those with nothing. I was told that luck and magnanimity had brought me to prep school, while a classmate who confused the geography of North Carolina and Oregon was never questioned as to the validity of her admittance. College admissions were sure to be easy for me, it was said, as children whose parents could donate buildings and courts lamented in the next breath the difficulty of college applications. And no matter how many times it was insinuated or said directly that my presence in elite schools was due to my blackness, I never had the slightest indication that they had asked themselves if being white or wealthy or both had affected their opportunities. Their place in life was natural, and mine was the aberration.
In the world of assumptions built by and for my white peers, a struggling white student is not inherently stupid; they are merely under-resourced. A white student in need of discipline isn’t unfocused or disruptive; they are simply underappreciated. A white student cannot diminish the quality of education; education exists for them, defined by them. To be white is to deserve better; to be wealthy is to have earned it. Very directly, wealthy white students are supposed to be there, and whatever stops them from being there is merely an obstacle to be removed. And so “merit” is merely a justification to continue to hold what is already theirs.
The power of this mindset is visible in the shift away from test scores and extracurricular accomplishments as the definition of “merit,” so as to limit the power of Asian and Asian-American applicants and maintain the value of the white and wealthy. It is visible in the aggrievement of Abigail Fisher, a completely unremarkable student, both in her complaint that she had been denied entry at her favored university because children from systematically under-resourced schools had “taken” her spot and in her persistence in having her disappointment made into national policy. It is visible in the efforts of trust-fund baby (in the most literal sense) Donald Trump mocking the education and talents of the first Black President of the United States, while obsessively hiding his own transcripts. Over and over again, the message about merit is the same: what white people deserve, Brown and Black people must earn.
The Varsity Blues scandal then is not a scandal of resources or theft, but of zealotry in defense of entitlement. Seeing the academic weakness of their children, wealthy parents decided that this was not the fair result of indulgence, indolence or incompetence, but rather a matter of perception. To fix that perception that their child was unprepared or unworthy of admission to an elite school, they spent millions of dollars crafting false transcripts, test scores—even athletic achievements. Whether it was done with hesitation or outright bravado, parents committed both to the idea that their children were unfit and that they deserved to attend these schools anyway. The spot among the elite already belonged to them; they needed only a justification to secure it.
There is a powerful sense that these elite educational institutions are supposed to reward diligence, perseverance, excellence; in short: merit. The furor of disappointment, anger and shock in response to the scandal shows how deeply embedded these myths of hard work and fairness are, how pervasive the idea that we are given what we are owed. But for those of us who could never be diligent enough, or persevere enough, or demonstrate enough excellence to deserve what we had earned, there is only irony and laughter in stealing from thieves.
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