The reality is money, fame and power, all held disproportionately by whites, speak loudest in this country, and always have.
Like everyone else, I was appalled by the revelations in the recent college admissions scandal, in which parents bribed, lied and falsified photographs and documents in order to gain their children’s admittance to elite universities. For obvious reasons — but especially for the damage it has done to the kids, both those unaware of their parents’ meddling and those rejected because they didn’t have the same power to influence — it was deeply disheartening. Evidently, if your pockets are deep enough and your ethics unscrupulous enough, your too can go to the college of your dreams.
So yes, I was appalled. What I wasn’t was shocked. Forget the long-held myth that a solid work ethic, can-do attitude and unwavering perseverance are all you need to open unlimited doors in America. If your skin is dark and your family is poor, that’s true for only the most diligent, resilient and fortunate. The reality is money, fame and power, all held disproportionately by whites, speak loudest in this country, and always have.
But after a few days of reading about the insane lengths to which these parents went to be able to say their darling got in to _______ (fill in the blank), I wondered why I was feeling uncomfortable when outraged friends and late night talk show hosts delivered nasty jokes and superior put-downs about the perpetrators. Why was I finding it so hard to laugh at them myself?
Why? Because I’m all too aware of how much I’ve benefitted from the same inequitable system.
But wait! Before my dear and deceased parents resurface to defend their good name, let me clarify that they never did anything illegal or unethical to pave my way; they would sooner have disowned me. Nevertheless, I have little doubt that my fortuitous college career was paved by their dictates and dollars.
Unlike the parents of every friend I had, mine insisted my five siblings and I apply only to out-of-state schools, though we lived in Michigan, which has its own acclaimed institutions. Though in-state tuition was considerably cheaper, they were convinced schools with prestigious names and storied reputations would represent a lifelong advantage. And, at a time when private school tuition was within reason, they could (literally) afford to buy that. (I suppose they actually might just have wanted to get rid of us, but somehow that thought never occurred to me.)
So, like my father before him, my older brother went to Dartmouth. An older sister went to Vassar; another to Beloit. When Mom and Dad insisted I not pursue a career as a ballet dancer in New York City, I ended up at Barnard, a place where I figured I could get a degree and dance. All six of us had good (not great) SAT scores, decent (but not the loftiest) grades and a variety of extracurricular interests. But I’m sure what got us into the ivied gates was my parents ability to pay full tuition.
Likewise, after obtaining an English degree that left me casting for a career direction, I’m sure the fact I’d graduated from its “sister school” and didn’t need a scholarship is what got me into a select class of 100 at the Columbia School of Journalism across the street. My ignorance was considerable (though maybe not worth the $6.5 million or whatever that hedge fund manager paid to get his kid into Harvard) but it didn’t preclude my total understanding that I represented neither the best in my class, nor an especially promising potential journalist, given that I had never written a single word for either my high school or college newspaper.
In fact, the main reason I’d applied at all was because my longtime boyfriend — a Harvard grad who’d wanted to be a writer from birth and whose SAT scores made mine look like a shoe size — had also done so. That I got in and he didn’t not only confirmed my skepticism about the admissions process, it ended our 13-year relationship. (But that’s another story.)
I went on to a fulfilling, if not lucrative career, one I hope has been a credit to my parents and the fine institutions that launched me. But I’m not naïve about the value of that “Columbia” on my resume nor the luxury I enjoyed of not having to work while attending college.
A recent presentation by Mark Paul, an assistant professor of economics at New College of Florida, underscored the growing wealth disparity in America that fuels and perpetuates ingrained systems of privilege like this one. A former economic advisor to Bernie Sanders, Paul detailed the widening divide between the top 10 percent of American households, which owns 76 percent of all the country’s wealth, and the bottom half of America which “has virtually no wealth at all.”
That’s because wealth — as opposed to income — is not earned, it’s inherited. And you won’t find many generational legacies of wealth among families of color in this country. Our history of slavery and civil rights, employment, housing and property discrimination has left the average black household with six pennies on the dollar of assets as compared to the average white household.
Equity in education isn’t “the great equalizer” we’ve been told it is, Paul said, but it can “narrow the gap a bit.” That’s one reason he argues for Sanders’ “College for All” proposal, which would eliminate tuition to four-year public colleges and universities.
“The family you’re born into shouldn’t be the determinant for opportunities in your life,” he said. “Wealth would no longer be the determinant of who gets to go to what schools. These are the types of policies that would help equalize our economy.”
I’ve tried to make the most of the opportunities given to me. But I’ll never for a minute believe I deserved them more than someone born to less fortunate parentage, or earned them on a level playing field.
Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.