News broke Tuesday of a nationwide, multimillion dollar college admissions scandal. Andrew Lelling, an attorney for Massachusetts was quoted saying “There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy. And there will not be a separate criminal justice system, either…”
Lelling is wrong. There is now, always has been, and always will be, a separate admissions process for the wealthy. It will not go away. No matter who those wealthy are, no matter what legislation we pass- the rich will find a way.
Not because they are rich, but because they are parents.
Tiger Moms, Momma Bears, Daddy Warbucks, or just a sugar Daddy parents in America operate under the assumption, the idea, or even the charge, that it is their duty is to give their children every advantage possible in life. And where you attend college can in fact be a real advantage.
And the real word there is indeed “advantage”.
This, the idea that fighting for advantage in parenting is expected, is the biggest obstacle to a just and equitable world. Because as long as that is our system, the parents with the most resources will always win for their own, and those without, will continue to fight for table scraps.
American parents are raising their families in a hyper competitive world that is continually being painted as more perilous than ever. While impending doom (razor blades in Halloween candy) may not truly lurk around every corner, upward economic mobility has indeed been on a slow and steady decline. Wage stagnation looks to stretch from one generation into another and income over a career continues to correlate to educational attainment. College remains important, if not in fact, at least in the minds of concerned parents. Elite schools who admitted 15% of applicants a decade ago now only admit 6%. Parents are truly freaking out.
We live in a competitive environment that requires a level of engagement beyond the capacity of children, requiring proactive parents to set up a path to potential success for their kids. At the top levels this competition is cut throat and more often than not, the spoils go to the children of the best resourced parents.
When advising families in the college application process I try to help them understand that for most of us, the name of the school we went to is much less important than the type of student a child has already proven to be. I work hard to help them find the right match of a school rather than chasing the school with the highest ranking. But if pressed, I will admit that for those who want to achieve remarkable things, those with the biggest aspirations, the most likely course is pretty narrow and goes through established pathways. There are a small number of schools that have produced presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and billionaires, and the odds of being the first from any given school, are incredibly small.
So what we have built is a competitive environment that gives the most benefit to those who already hold the most resources. But these well resourced parents are not just competing with the poor folks, but with each other. Again, this world is cut-throat. This environment leads to any effort to carve out a path, or channel resources to those who do not already have them- be it through state or federal funding or programs like affirmative action, to be immediately targeted as unfair.
Elite schools can afford to offer free schooling to poor kids for two reasons; first, because top schools are already well funded. Most educational donations go to the schools that already have the most money. These schools are indeed rich. Second, these schools can offer free education because the number of poor students who are accepted, is incredibly low.
The top predicting data point for who gets into an elite college is the wealth of the parent.
This happens for a constellation of reasons. These families tend to live in richer neighborhoods with better funded schools. These better funded schools tend to have more qualified staff, more stable student population, and a historical pipeline of feeding high school kids into elite colleges. These parents also tend to spend money on tutors, test prep courses, and specific extra curriculars that align with college expectations. These families also tend to make up the bulk of legacy admissions, or in other words, the parents of these families often attended elite schools themselves.
So my advice to financially struggling parents who are hoping their child will go to Harvard, is to stop saving for tuition and start spending now on a higher mortgage and tutors. Stop investing in basketball or track, and focus on fencing or crew. Even then, know that there will be some other parent willing to buy a building or bribe a coach in order to stack the deck in their favor.
As long as parenting is a high stakes zero sum self interested gladiator tournament we can never hope for any real semblance of an equitable meritocracy, not just in admissions buy in anything.
This mind-set, or maybe this reality, is why people hire their nephew or niece in both corporations and construction. It is why people lie to school districts about their address and why people cross borders without legal documents. We cringe at the thought of one demographic having privilege or advantage over another- we all say we want equality, that is until it comes to parenting.
Because of this, any proposal that would move anything, be it admissions or employment, to a place that would be fair or meritocratic is going to need to be bigger and more expansive than any of us may be willing to accept.
Because of parents.
Parenting is the best indisputable evidence that we don’t really believe in a meritocracy. Because we are either acting under the assumption that it doesn’t exist so we must fight to get our kids a fair shake, or it does exist and we are fighting to get our kids an advantage.
In 1935 Bruce M. Wright was accepted to Princeton and awarded a merit scholarship. When he arrived on campus the administration realized Wright was black, and they refused to enroll him.
This isn’t all that interesting or unusual, because it was so normal. We have all heard these sorts of stories before. I’m telling tis one now because I think it is worth looking at what the white men of Princeton said about it at the time. You know, so that maybe we won’t be doomed to repeat it and all that.
In explaining the University’s change of mind, Radcliffe Heermance, the dean of admissions, shared with no intent at irony that, “Princeton University does not discriminate against any race, color, or creed. This is clearly set forth in the original charter of the college and the tradition has been maintained throughout the life of the University”
Heerman went on to explain that he in fact likes black people, “I speak as one who has always been particularly interested in the colored race, because I have had very pleasant relations with your race…”.
He went on to explain that he could not come to school there as he would be the only black person and hence would feel lonely. He also shared that there are quite a number of southern students at Princeton and they would not like sharing their school with a black person. They would make Wright to feel unwelcome.
So Wright was sent home against his will.
In other words, Heermance, with no intent of irony, told a black scholarship recipient that he could not attend Princeton, because white students didn’t want him there, but that this didn’t constitute racism. Because Princeton’s charter stated that they don’t discriminate. It was obvious is both Princeton’s actions and explanation how they ranked and valued humans. The racism of white students was acceptable, worth accommodating, but the presence of a black student was not.
America as a body, has decades and decades of practice doing racist things and explaining that it isn’t racism. Such is evident in the original Constitution, in the way our economy functions, and in so many official documents, judgements, and practices in so many places, locales, and institutions, that trying to separate out racism from these things is like trying to extract the salt from a baked loaf of bread.
I am not sure if this is possible with bread, but I have hope for America. But if it is to happen we cannot over simplify the task at hand or take explanations at face value. We have to step back and evaluate the consequences of our actions and the values they make evident.
And we have to change.
In 1925 a Utah businessman having just sold his car dealership was looking for a new venture. Having a good sense of his market he moved from selling cars into selling fried chicken.
He opened a cabaret restaurant and called it “The Coon Chicken Inn”.
The spot’s décor featured a black face minstrel, complete with over-sized grin, bright red lips, and a winking eye. The icon was plastered on all of its menus, the napkins, the catering delivery trucks, and then there was the front door. Patrons entered the establishment by walking through the mouth of a gigantic black-faced minstrel head.
The owner wasn’t making business choices based in some specific hatred for any one person, or out of spite toward a group of people, he was just looking for something he thought would work. Something that would sell. And it did.
The place was popular enough in Utah that the owners were able to open franchises in Portland and Seattle. Now this is not to say that no one thought it offensive or wrong. In fact the NAACP sued the restaurant claiming their theme was racist. Because it was. But the owners, and the general white population, simply didn’t care.
In response, and to avoid further litigation, the Coon chicken Inn painted the black-face blue.
When sued for being racist, the ownership chose a technicality sort of solution rather than ending the racism. The NAACP were not pleased but the courts were satisfied and the local public never cared in the first place. People kept eating there till 1957.
Black face has never not been racist, but it was, and has been, acceptable by the general white American public for more than a century. Racism was not just in the South, nor was it just the way some people treated black people. Racism, or anti-blackness, was a pervasive part of American culture- like apple pie and baseball.
That does not go away over night. The ripple effect carries consequences well into our day and when we, us now, are confronted with those consequences we would do well to consider for whom we are concerned. Are we more worried about the careers of white politicians or the day to day lives and status of black people?
Studying the history of black people in America has taught me a few things that I believe important.
I have learned what I think most of us think we already know; that human greatness is an historical constant and exists at equal rates across all racial and ethnic lines. In other words, there have always been amazing people, saints and or geniuses, and that no one group of people holds a monopoly on producing that greatness.
I have also learned that segregation and racial hierarchy are not natural occurrences. While some level of greed or tribalism is natural and present in most all of mankind, those negative tendencies do not naturally act out or manifest along the color line. People do not naturally group themselves according to the amount of melanin existing in our skin. In fact, without outside forces or external motivators, people tend to mix when left in close proximity.
Knowing these two things sheds a bright light on the whole of American history, because that history has very much been about grouping humans by skin color and claiming greatness for one group while attempting to squash and squelch the magnificence of another. Writing or reading this is not an exercise in fault or blame, though we should not shy away from such when earned, but rather understanding the hows and whys of now requires an honest pursuit and acknowledgment of truth. We must acknowledge not just how great so many black people have been throughout the American timeline or within American borders, but also how forcefully and intentionally America as an organization, has worked to resist, trample, and exploit black greatness in order to favor white people.
This is not revisionist history or America hating, this is what the bulk and majority of American history, law, and practice, has been. Because this sort of race stratification and hierarchical division is not natural, there have been ups and downs, progress and regression over time, as some black and white- and brown- people have pushed and fought for racial equality, and those efforts have been met not just with personal resistance, but intentional and systematized attacks.
Because there have been ups and downs, we, all of us, must know the hows and whys of yesterday because whatever our now is, whether it be an up or down, we must know that it is not guaranteed nor has it ever been permanent.
And we are the ones who create it. We make up whatever now is. It has never been “just the way things are”. It is always however we make it.
“I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again, It’s the L.A. moment. It’s the L.A. moment.” Craig stated with enthusiasm.
He did indeed say it twice and probably has repeated that repeated phrase a million times- because it’s true.
Craig said it to me in an easy-going sort of way, looking over at Mike with a smile. The two of them had just spent the entire night painting the interior walls of Commonwealth Proper’s new showroom in DTLA.
The space used to be the backstage area of Al’s Bar, one-time hot spot to see artists like Beck, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Replacements. You can still see what used to be the stage in what is now a clothing shop next door. When I was there I could also see a white board with a sketch of the new floor plan and a list of all the construction still left to be completed before they open. It looks to be the kind of classy with an intentionally unfinished rough edge sort of place that I would expect from Commonwealth Proper.
Commonwealth Proper has matured since it started back in 2008. It has grown up in that there will now be 4 showrooms (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, LA), and matured in that the brand doesn’t have to try to be anything other than what it is. They have established themselves and are free to be whatever sort of menswear design shop they want to be.
And I kind of love what they have become. Commonwealth Proper has done this odd thing where they have learned the skill of bespoke tailoring appropriate for Wall Street and too good for Congress, while maintaining both a sense of humor and an edge.
I am not a floral corduroy jacket or full plaid suit wearing guy, I’m too physically large for that much pattern, but I love that Craig makes and wears those things. I love even more, and am the sort of guy, that would wear a fitted navy suit with the two Ron’s, Swanson and Burgundy, printed on the lining. I would wear that to death. If someone pitched that idea to me in advance I would snicker with self-righteous doubt, which of course shows how little I know and how skilled these guys are.