For Black Students in Higher Education, Victory is in the Struggle

Operation Varsity Blues,” the FBI’s investigation of the recent higher education admissions scandal, teaches students that their academically unqualified peers can become people of influence in business, politics, and society without necessarily working hard for the privilege. Black elders regularly admonish youth to be twice as good to get half of what privileged white people have. However, it appears that those efforts will not be enough to overcome an unequal system. Black students will have to openly embrace policies designed to improve their opportunities, such as affirmative action, or re-evaluate their choices of higher education institutions. They should never fall for the myth of meritocracy because victory is in the struggle.

The exclusive institutions that privileged parents and youth cheat to enter were created for them. White Europeans came to this nation and enslaved their way to achieve what they could not obtain in their native lands: elite status. Scholar Craig Wilder writes that ambitious European Americans established institutions like Yale to differentiate themselves from working people, advance socially, and refine the culture that they were establishing. The founders of early educational institutions also crafted the nation’s founding documents. Their descendants helped create the League of Nations and the United Nations to spread democracy in the 20th century, all while rejecting Jewish and Black students. Elite educational institutions are training grounds for the world’s leadership class. Webs of influence at schools like Princeton privilege legacy admissions and development admits — applicants recommended by the fundraising office — while perpetuating the myth of meritocracy.

Many privileged people cry foul when competing with those outside of their status. In the past, the threat of competition unsettled the sensibilities of university officials and preparatory school administrators alike. As Black students finally gained entrance into the Ivy League, officials at these exclusionary secondary schools believed their students faced discrimination because of the growing economic and racial diversity of student bodies at elite colleges. Until the decades after World War II, nearly 70 percent of some prep school graduates went to the Ivy League; those graduates became (and become) Supreme Court justices, senators, and presidents. Scholar Michelle Purdy noted that the few Black learners who could attend Ivy League schools suffered racism to join America’s leadership class. In March 2019, students of color at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York staged a lock-in to protest the “culture of bias” that allowed white students to use racial epithets without consequences. The racist behavior of privileged youth has not faded; the demonstration mirrored that of Black students 40 years ago who staged a similar protest at the school.

In the current scandal, white people who could not advance on merit through the structures created for them used privilege and wealth to barter their way into elite institutions. The young people caught in the scandal are portrayed as unknowing victims of their circumstances, and are even called “kids.” By contrast, Antwon Rose was the same age as these prep school youth and is known for his misdeeds. He is not presented as a child but depicted as a criminal whom a Pittsburgh police officer deemed dangerous enough to shoot in the back. When advocating harsher sentencing, conservative pundits claim that youth like Rose need to be responsible for their actions — it’s unlikely that those pundits would demand that the beneficiaries of bribes take responsibility by giving their spots to qualified students.

Intellectually talented working class youth learn that in a capitalist society, everything is negotiable.

They learn that power protects itself and that some wealthy people will, by hook or crook, attempt to gain access to elite institutions that have constantly bolstered the socioeconomic schema. They learn that if privileged people steal millions of dollars of education, it results in mostly bad press. Yale rescinded one student’s admission and denied another’s entrance; one student will not return to the University of Southern California (USC), and six other applications were rejected. Perhaps other hard working students (and their parents) learn that they should pay more attention to and put more resources into institutions like Bennett College and other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Where do student criminals go when Yale and USC are no longer options? Perhaps one of the regional or state colleges that legislators have regularly defunded will accept them. Elite institutions should take this moment to reflect on their admissions protocols and implement policies of reparations. It could be based on the Foundation Years model that Dartmouth College used in the 1960s and 1970s, which brought impoverished but talented members of the Conservative Vice Lords from Chicago to the Ivy League school for academic remediation that encouraged matriculation. Yale could develop and admit students in New Haven’s Dixwell neighborhood, and USC could enroll youth from South Central Los Angeles. Since they have enjoyed cheap land and mortgages as well as tax exemptions, such reparative actions could assist these exclusive universities on the road to restitution.

Black youth will be viewed as a challenge to meritocracy, taking up space and resources rather than being a solution to problems of inequity. Ultimately, Black youth cannot prevent their skin-privileged peers and their parents from projecting their sins onto Black people. These Black students should boldly take pride in benefiting from affirmative action whenever possible because they are helping elite institutions live up to their liberal missions.

Black youth must recognize their greatness in making it this far; their ancestors are proud. To progress, however, they must be clear-eyed about the educational system and acknowledge that institutions were not established for their success. To attain a select education, Black learners will need to either overachieve or redefine which institutions they perceive as elite. They must understand what the late Derrick Bell, author of Ethical Ambition, tried to teach: the victory for the oppressed is in the struggle.

About the Author

Stefan M. Bradley is chair and associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University. His is author of the award-winning Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights Black Power, and the Ivy League and Harlem vs. Columbia University: Black Student Power in the Late 1960s.