Rich people busted for allegedly bribing and buying their unqualified kids into elite universities was news that caused some of us to shake our heads in dismay. And in the memory of the affirmative action baggage we have carried like weights of shame as we stumbled from college into the workplace.
Yeah, that really sucked.
If your parents were from Mexico like mine, then this was the drill: Your place in college was secured by tokenism. Or so you were told by “friends.” And when you were hired for your chosen field, as I was hired by the San Jose Mercury News and then The Bee, then you were a “minority hire.” Or so you were told by “friends.”
I struggle to express the hole these indignities burned in me when I was naive and young and unaware of the social, political and cultural upheaval caused by the integration of white collar jobs and universities, a process that began before I came of age in the 1980s, but was in full backlash mode when I cluelessly took my place in the line of American opportunity.
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What does this have to do with Tuesday’s news of a foiled college admissions scam allegedly led by a Sacramento man ? Well, everything. As reported in The Bee: “William Rick Singer, a resident of Sacramento and Newport Beach...is accused of facilitating cheating on SAT and ACT exams in exchange for monetary bribes, most ranging between $15,000 and $75,000 per test.” Hollywood actresses and CEOs, and at least two Folsom residents, were implicated in the federal sting.
I was reading this story with my morning coffee – about how privileged white people were accused of buying access to elite universities for their kids who presumably wouldn’t otherwise qualify – and remembering all the times I heard that minority students didn’t belong in universities. They were told that they were only there because of their immigrant backgrounds or the color of their skin. I had a “friend” say that to my face as I was about to graduate from San Jose State University in 1986.
To paraphrase a formative experience, it went something like this: “Hey Marcos. Congratulations on your internship at the Los Angeles Times. I wish I had a Spanish surname so I could get an internship at the L.A. Times.”
The guy who said that is the editor of a newspaper today. And what did I do or say in response? Nothing. I internalized it and I let that comment – and many others – mess with me for years.
Until that comment, I had no idea how our world worked with respect to opportunity, race, and ethnicity.
The flashpoint was always the same. It arose when someone from a minority group aspired to a university or a job that had relatively few minorities. Then it became a big problem. A big, big problem. Then your colleagues or classmates would question your legitimacy behind your back – or right front of you.
When I got to The Bee in 1989, it had one female editor and most bosses were white men. And when the inevitable change came, it was accompanied by a whole lot of behavior and talk that today would be deemed “inappropriate.”
In the early part of my career, in San Jose and Sacramento, I worked alongside men and women who helped integrate newsrooms and, I’m here to tell you, that was neither easy nor pleasant. Because when people are vying opportunities, some believe that those opportunities should belong to them. And when those opportunities go to someone else? Well, that’s how the “reverse racism” charge was born despite all evidence to the contrary.
Privilege still prevails in America and anyone who says otherwise is not paying attention.
That’s how Brett Kavanaugh could sneer during his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing that he got into Yale all on his own, even though he absolutely received help. That’s how Gov. Gavin Newsom can describe himself as a small business owner when his family connections to the Gettys and other super rich California families have greased his skids since he was a kid. That’s how Jared Kushner’s daddy could buy his way into Harvard. After that, the young lad availed himself of his privilege to become right-hand man to the President of the United States. How did he do that? He married the president’s daughter.
Meanwhile, white men still dominate the Fortune 500 list. American newsrooms are still, after all these years, largely white and male. As are the top managers at American companies. As are the ranks of baseball managers. As are the ranks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, despite the best efforts of reformers. When the time came to hand out the top Oscar last month for Best Picture, the academy chose “Green Book” – a racial-healing fantasy written, directed and financed by white guys.
That was special. Also special is how some folks don’t react well when a woman or a person of color is placed in charge of a company.
Isn’t that backlash why we have Donald Trump as president in the first place? Wasn’t it partly because of backlash to Barack Obama, the first African American president? And wasn’t it partly backlash against Hillary Clinton, who would have been our first female president?
Instead, we elected a most unfit man to the highest office in the land. And if that ain’t the biggest backlash to affirmative action, then I don’t know what is.
Trump rode a wave of “economic anxiety” all the way to the Oval Office. His symbol remains a “wall” he wants to build along the Mexico border to keep the dirty brown people out. Just about every time an important, famous or rich black person speaks out, Trump questions their intelligence.
When he talks about making America “great again,” he is selling an idea of America that some people claim has died. That’s the idea of white guys being in charge of everything. OK, when did that end? It didn’t. It’s still with us according to pretty much any metric you use to measure opportunity and affluence.
So, as always, the problem is when a person of color or a woman achieves something. That’s when people feel threatened. That’s when they go on the attack.
I’m 56 and this has always been the case in my lifetime. So with news that rich and famous white people are paying bribes to get their kids into elite universities, my outrage is limited. Who didn’t know that similar stuff has been longstanding and is simply the way of the world?
My problem isn’t the celebrity bribers. My problem isn’t that Gavin Newsom is just like executives I’ve met in my 30 years in the work force. They are born on third base, they get the benefit of the doubt, they follow sheltered paths, they are never labeled as tokens.
I have been. A lot of people have been. You’re outraged about the myth of meritocracy? Yeah, tell us about it.