Making the grade or paying for it: Meritocracy is a lie; so are quotas

So, let’s talk a bit about the college admission testing scam, bribery, fraud story that involves dozens of parents with enough money to try to buy their kids’ way into college but somehow not enough to educate and raise them well enough to make it into college on their own.

This is the part where, probably, those of you who don’t like me much will mutter, “She makes everything about race” and even those of you who agree with me a lot here might say, “Are we really surprised that people with money buy their kids’ way into college?” So, there may be a bunch of eye-rolling as people read this, because it may not seem like a racial issue.

But it really is. A good chunk of it anyway.

I mean, on one hand it’s both absurd and funny. We have a list of people who may or may not go to jail but nonetheless are facing serious federal charges, among them the actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman (though somehow Huffman’s husband, actor William H. Macy dodged being charged with anything). And jokes about “Aunt Becky” from “Fuller House” going bad or Macy possibly somehow avoiding arrest for what some of his iconic characters get nailed for are all well and good out there on those social media streets, and I’ve made some of them myself, but this is serious business.

And I need to say it again: Race matters here.

A New York Times article talked about some of why it matters, including as one interviewed source said: “This scandal exposed the fact that there is a misplaced emphasis on so-called affirmative action inequities, rather than privilege.”

I mean, you’ve heard people before gripe about “quotas” and people only getting into college because they’re not white, right? Maybe even had some of those thoughts yourself. You may recall a few years back Abigail Fisher, a white woman who sued claiming she didn’t get into the school of her choice because some person of color got her spot instead (instead of because her grades weren’t good enough), which ultimately failed but points to how pervasive this belief is, given that she actually decided to ram her case through the courts even though she didn’t deserve the admission. And think about it: How could she possibly know a person of color got her spot anyway?

Black parents in particular often have to tell their kids that they will have to work twice as hard to get as much as a white person does—and the reality is that we often get half as much for working twice as hard.

So much of the country buys into the lies that students of color, especially Black ones, are getting into schools without any qualifications and effort. People have accused me of getting my degrees only because I’m Black while also suggesting that I got a free ride for them for being Black. Let me tell you, the more than $100,000 I owe in student loans says otherwise. And after working my ass off for both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I spent years in low-paying positions (which people still assumed I didn’t deserve because I was Black) before getting the one I have now that actually pays me something approaching what I’m worth, and people still want to say I’m not qualified despite my continued successes.

I’m not alone. Black women, for example, are among the most educated people around and yet they have massive debt as a result and continue to be underpaid and under-represented in high-level positions.

To be honest, it’s really galling to me that the Lori Loughlins and Felicity Huffmans and William H. Macys of the world (and their non-celebrity ilk) have been getting away with this kind of thing for years and people shrug and say “That’s the way it’s always been” and then have the nerve to question the right of someone like me to be in a school or to prosper from my degree.

Here are some other random thoughts about why this scandal matters in terms of race for a lot of non-white people but most especially Black ones:

  • We are constantly told that we’re held back by laziness or lack of ability and told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and yet the mediocre white people get to ascend the ranks constantly (remember slacker George W. Bush with his “gentleman’s C” grades in the Ivy League who got to be president…or the even less academically minded orange guy currently in the White House). That means mediocre (or worse) white people with fewer qualifications get to regularly and typically exert power and authority over smarter, more competent non-white ones.
  • Nobody questions that some partying, slacking white person in a college or university got there on merits, but we get questions about whether we’re part of a quota only because of the color of our skin, while we’re often making the grade and working our asses off to earn money.
  • People in this current scandal were faking sports participation/talent by their kids with doctored records and photos because their grades weren’t good enough, while non-white kids who get athletic scholarships and have good grades get accused of being idiots who only got into college because they can dribble or kick or pass a ball.
  • Black people who use other peoples’ addresses (like Tonya McDowell or Kelley Williams-Bolar) to ensure their kids can go to decent high schools under safe conditions have been given felony convictions and jail time—just for trying to make sure their kids get basic education. And I will be very surprised if the white people in this current scandal get much, if any, time at all in the end (possibly not even convictions). And even if they do, there are all those white people out there who did “less illegal” ways of getting their kids into college who probably think jailing those Black parents for faking an address is just fine, and that ain’t right.
  • Meanwhile, while people complain about “affirmative action” that doesn’t really hold white people back from opportunities at all and those same people claim to be all about real educations for people who “deserve it,” yet they also tend to be silent on the lack of funding for schools in largely non-white areas, leading to a $23-billion funding gap between mostly white schools compared to most non-white ones. They ain’t about educational equality; they’re about trying to ensure that Black, Latinx and Indigenous people are as under-educated and given as few opportunities as possible and that the social status quo of white’s first remains intact.

In the wake of this admissions scandal hitting the news, white America and Black America in particular are having two different discussions about it. And while it isn’t all about race, the problem is that in too many of the white discussions there isn’t any time devoted to the racial implications at all. And that’s why the affirmative action myth and all the related myths will continue to dominate for so many of them when they see a Black or brown person in a university setting and question their right to be there or look at their degree on a resume and disregard its validity.


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