Felicity Huffman; Lori Loughlin (Getty/AP)

Anti-racism activist Tim Wise: How white privilege shaped the college admissions scandal

Activist and author says students admitted on false premises should be expelled: "Clean out their dorm rooms"


Chauncey DeVega
March 22, 2019 11:00AM (UTC)

As revealed last week in a federal indictment, at least 33 affluent individuals, including television actors, corporate executives and bankers, allegedly engaged in crimes such as bribery and fraud in an effort to buy admission for their children into America's most prestigious universities. These included Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, Wake Forest and other schools.

At a press conference last Tuesday, Andrew Lelling, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, described the defendants as "a catalog of wealth and privilege. ... They include, for example, the CEOs of private and public companies, successful securities and real estate investors, two well-known actresses, a famous fashion designer and the co-chairman of a global law firm."

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For those unfamiliar with the great lengths that well-resourced families will go to secure unearned and undeserved opportunities, the details of the "Varsity Blues" conspiracy might seem outlandish. The ringleader and organizer was allegedly paid tens of millions of dollars to ensure admission for his clients' children. This involved bribing athletic coaches to secure a place at these elite schools for students who did not even play the sport in question. Standardized exams were altered, "corrected", and taken by people other than the students. The consulting firm at the center of the "Varsity Blues" scandal falsified other records as well.

In fact, this scandal offers only an amplified version of the broken system of American higher education, where well-resourced individuals, families and communities can place their children in elite private and public schools and pay for educational counselors, tutors and test preparation, as well as other opportunities which are not generally available for most people. "Opportunity hoarding" -- the means whereby social and economic capital and all the opportunities which come from it are held almost exclusively in the hands of the rich or upper middle class and rich -- is one of the main day-to-day methods through which intergenerational  economic inequality is perpetuated in the United States.

Because race and class are inseparably intertwined in American society, the "Varsity Blues" bribery and fraud conspiracy is also a gross example of white privilege and unearned advantages. In the United States the average white family has at least 15 times more wealth than the average black or Latino family. (Some estimates suggest that this difference is closer to 30 times if vehicles are removed as an asset in these calculations.) This disparity in wealth remains even when comparing white and black families who earn similar incomes.

Ultimately, this extreme disparity in wealth is a human story about how certain individuals and groups are able to expand their affluence and opportunities across generations while others are weighed down with the twin societal disadvantages of not being white and not having access to even modest amounts of intergenerational wealth.

How does America's educational system amplify both white privilege and class privilege? What does the "Varsity Blues" scandal reveal about the cultural pathologies of the rich and powerful? How should the students implicated in the "Varsity Blues" scandal be punished? How does standardized testing perpetuate racial and economic inequality? How is this scandal being twisted by white conservatives into another way of blaming black and brown Americans for the bad behavior of white elites?

In an effort to answer these questions I recently spoke with Tim Wise, one of the nation's leading anti-racism activists and a frequent guest on MSNBC and other news outlets. Wise is the author of numerous books, including “Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority” and “Under the Affluence: Shaming the Poor, Praising the Rich and Sacrificing the Future of America.” This is the second part of a two-part conversation. The first installment can be read here.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. You can hear our full conversation on my podcast, "The Chauncey DeVega Show."

What does the "Varsity Blues" cheating and bribery scandal reveal about white privilege and its intersection with income inequality and class privilege? The whole story is both funny and damning: There are so many legal ways for the rich to manipulate college admissions that to go to such great lengths seems unnecessary -- unless the students involved are really that dim and unqualified.

Either their kids are incredibly unintelligent and incompetent or at least these parents must think that is the case. Otherwise all these young people would need to get into college, given their parents' money, would be a ACT or SAT prep course or maybe just have mom and dad write a check to the school as a "donation" -- which is completely legal, whether or not it's ethical. But apparently that was not enough to guarantee admission for their kid.

Beyond the 50 or so examples we know of from this alleged college bribery case, what this really shows is a bigger problem with our culture that is rarely discussed.  We're very quick in the United States to call out the so-called "culture of poverty" to disparage poor people -- especially those who are black -- or to say that poor people have bad values and poor impulse control. But what could be a better example of short-term thinking than a parent who breaks the law and cheats to get their kid into a college that they are really not qualified to be in?

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When rich people make these types of bad decisions they are not generally discussed and criticized as representing a "culture of affluence" or a "culture of wealth." When Wall Street grifters tanked the economy that was not broadly attributed to a "culture of affluence." I hope that we can use this moment to flip the script on this cultural critique that we have put on the people at the bottom for so long, and examine the corruption and bad behavior of the country's elites.

We are seeing the standard deflections and denials of responsibility, which are central to how white privilege and other unearned white advantages function in American society. These are nonsense claims like, "These students didn't know what was happening" or "How will they be hurt emotionally by discovering that they are frauds?" The excuse-making is really sickening and pathetic.

I don't care. Look, I'm the parent of a high school junior right now who is looking at colleges. She's in the process of trying to winnow down where she wants to go.. As a parent of a child in that situation, the idea that she would not know if we interfered is absurd. She doesn't even like it when we look up stuff online. She doesn't want even that level of interference, and that's the norm. First of all, if you didn't take the test, how can you possibly not know that? If there was someone next to you correcting your answers and giving you help, how can you not know that? If you got to take the SAT or ACT. test home at night or got all sorts of extra time, how can you not know that is abnormal?

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How can these children of the rich who were apparently admitted to these schools through fraud not know that lies were told on their behalf about them being elite high school athletes? They were also magically diagnosed with learning disabilities right before they had to take a standardized test. Again, this is absurd. There is this other defense that the parents mailed in the applications for some of the students and they might not have known their parents altered them. If you can't figure out how to submit an application, then you just don't need to go to college, period. Just stay home.

There was even a segment on Tucker Carlson's show about how this scandal is really an example of a broken admissions system where affirmative action creates all this corruption and unfairness -- for white people. In this especially broken logic, somehow when rich white people do something wrong it is really black and brown people's fault.

This is coming from a guy, Tucker Carlson, who has also amplified the racist "white genocide" concept on his show. Carlson also talks repeatedly about  immigration replacing "our culture." Ultimately, what Carlson and his guest are saying is that if we get rid of these programs that offer opportunities to people of color who've actually faced systemic and interpersonal hardship and inequality in their lives and overcome it enough to be qualified to go to these elite schools, then rich white people will somehow stop gaming the system.

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This is putting the cart before the horse. It's precisely because the system of education in America specifically, and higher education more generally, has been so tilted towards white people that affirmative action was originally created and is still needed. That's the whole point. If the system had not been rigged from the start, affirmative action would not have been necessary. And beyond the super-rich who are being implicated in this "Varsity Blues" criminal case there is a whole system where the likes of Jared Kushner's dad can write a $2.5 million check to get his incompetent, pathetic son into Harvard University, where he did not belong.

It's also a system of K-12 education whereby black kids and Latino kids are in schools that are approximately 10 to 12 times more likely to be places of concentrated poverty. Racial preferences for whites in America have existed for almost 400-years in the United States. Only willful ignorance prevents people from seeing that fact.

There is also the narrative of presumed inferiority of black and brown folks, regardless of their academic and professional accomplishment. This is the whole "You took a white person's place" cultural script. The soft bigotry of low expectations.

Well, this cheating scandal by rich white people should blow that narrative out of the water, because we have the data in terms of legacy admissions at Harvard, for example -- never mind the Abigail Fisher case at the University of Texas --that it is really mediocre white folks who benefit from the system far more than black and brown folks, who have to be 10 times as good to get half as far.

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Admission involves many variables. You cannot blame one factor on why you did not get into the school that you preferred. Moreover, at the most selective colleges in America, black and brown folks combined are about 14 percent of all students. By definition, they did not bump a white person to get that spot. For example, at Harvard, they have enough people applying who have perfect SATs and perfect GPAs that they could fill out their entire freshman class two or three times over most years.

Is it frustrating when one does not get into the school they wanted to? Sure. But again, it is not black and brown folks who "took" a white student's "rightful place." There also needs to be more discussion of the role of geography in how universities decide who to admit. Potential students from rural white communities are viewed as much more desirable for purposes of "geographic diversity" in an entering first-year college class than are those from more populated regions. That is a type of built-in "affirmative action" for white students.

There are serious proposals to make college admissions at elite schools into a lottery system where a minimum set of criteria -- albeit still very competitive -- are used. But ultimately what this all points to is a need to completely overhaul college admissions for the betterment of all these kids and families. We don't need a generation of neurotic kids and neurotic parents who are fighting over the pieces of these small pies known as the admissions process. We need kids to be healthy and just live their lives and realize that where they go to college is not going to define who they are. Unfortunately, we have a lot of parents who have raised them to believe that is the end-all and be-all of their existence.

This "Varsity Blues" cheating scandal also exposes other fictions about meritocracy and the rigor of these elite institutions. There are many examples of students matriculating into these elite colleges and universities -- doing well and graduating -- and then it is discovered that their credentials were falsified. Moreover, we also know that standardized tests do not predict success in college.

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That is correct. Why then are these standardized tests still being used? Why are we using them in private prep schools? Why are we using them in colleges? Very simply, standardized tests are still used because they produce the biggest benefit for the people who have always had the largest amount of privilege in America. The scores on these tests correlate first and foremost with zip code. If you ask any college administrator or any college president, in private, when there are no funders or cameras around, "Do you believe that the SAT, the ACT, the GRE, MCAT, LSAT have any real importance in terms of predicting a person's ability?" They will tell you "no".

But these administrators and university officers cannot allow themselves to say such things publicly because the people who do the best with the current testing regime are the people who write the checks, and they are the people who count in this world.

As you said, SATs and ACTs really only predict how well a student will do during the first semester or year of college. The fact that students are chosen based on tests with such little predictive power is fundamentally absurd.

This cheating scandal also came to light while we are awaiting the Supreme Court decision about Harvard University and "affirmative action."

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First, I would encourage the Asian-American folks who are being used, and perhaps are vulnerable to the siren song of this right-wing argument that they go and study the history of Ed Blum, the guy who is the driving force behind this Harvard affirmative action case. For years Blum has been trying to get rid of affirmative action and he's always picked supposedly aggrieved white people who he claims  have been harmed, such as Abigail Fisher -- who certainly was not qualified to go to the University of Texas, by the way.

Bloom got tired of losing, and I think he decided that one of the ways he could do better with public opinion and the courts would be to find a nonwhite face to be his new face of victimization.

The second thing I would suggest is that Asian brothers and sisters who may not know this information -- it was actually Asian folks who alerted me to this fact -- go back and look at the history of the "model minority' myth. People like Ed Blum and other right-wingers are using that myth to make it seem as though their opposition to affirmative action programs for black and brown folks is not racist at its core.

The history of the "model minority" concept in which Asians are stereotyped as all being hard-working, studious people who deserve our support, and that we should all be more like them, has its origins in the early 1960s. As that concept started to get circulated in print and elsewhere the subtext was, "Why can't minorities just keep their noses clean and their heads down like these folks?"

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What's going on in 1961? The United States is in the middle of the civil rights rebellion. What better way to throw cold water on the civil rights uprising than to essentially argue with the model-minority myth that, "Hey, you know? Those black folks over there, if they would just be more like these hard-working Asians, they wouldn't have all these problems."

Context is key here in another way: The model-minority myth was created by white people when the United States still had immigration restrictions on Asians. The United States is getting ready to start bombing Southeast Asia into oblivion. More than 100,000 Japanese-Americans had been locked up in internment camps only two decades earlier. America has a long history of anti-Asian bias but all of a sudden there is this new right-wing narrative where we love Asians -- but only so far as we can use them as a weapon against black and brown folks.

The good news from this Harvard trial is that there are many Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders who have been pushing back against the model-minority myth and the efforts to use their group as a wedge and tool against black Americans and other nonwhite groups. Blum and other conservatives are not really interested in helping Asian folks. It is about hurting black and brown folks with the goal of ultimately helping whites.

What do you think should happen to the students who are implicated in this college admission bribery scandal?  

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They have to be put out of school. Again, I do not believe that any of them are innocent. But for the sake of the conversation, let us assume the possibility that a few of them may have been innocent in terms of knowing the particulars of what happened with the cheating and bribery. But these students have still received ill-gotten gains. Here is an analogy. If a person who stole $1 million put the money in my bank account, I know that I didn't earn it. I am not entitled to keep it just because I'm not the one who stole it.

If it could be shown that any of these young people truly and honestly did not know what was happening, then they should reapply. If they can apply and get in through the normal means, fine, give them a shot. But if these rich white kids knew, as I suspect they did, that strings had been pulled and the scam had been run on their behalf, they should be expelled. Put their property out on the street. Clean out their dorms. I also think students who benefited from this scam should be permanently blackballed from higher education -- at least at any of those elite institutions.

I have very little sympathy for them at this particular moment unless they can demonstrate some significant restitution. Perhaps if they want to publicly admit It: "You know what? This was horrible. We'd like to donate X million dollars to set up scholarship funds for folks who are marginalized to get into these schools and then be able to afford it."

Maybe if these rich white students did something like that with their money, then I might say, "All right, give them another chance. Let them apply through the normal means." But if they're not willing to do that -- and I suspect absolutely zero of them will be -- then let the chips fall where they may and they can struggle like the rest of the students.

This political and social moment in the United States is an example of a particularly malignant type of white entitlement. How are we doing as a society in terms of confronting this problem?

White entitlement is baked into the DNA of the United States of America. But there is value in repetition. There is value in reminding people of that fact over and over again. Sometimes it feels like we're banging our heads against the wall and we're not getting anywhere. But I think as much as things are coming off the rails at this particular moment in American history, it is also the case that you have more people talking about and actually naming concepts, facts, social problems and realities such as "white privilege." "white fragility," "white entitlement" and "institutional racism."

This language has now entered the mainstream of American public discourse. Now that we have the language being used, that is another step in confronting racial inequality and injustice and deploying those concepts to do the work of real social and political change to make American society better and healthier.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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