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White privilege and hypocrisy are at the center of college admission scandal

It also helps show a way African-Americans and low-income families are continually shut out of college

The college admissions scandal uncovered by the U.S. Justice Department speaks illegally to the white affirmative action this country accepts legally every day. Even as a few bad actors and actresses are rounded up for letting white privilege and helicopter parenting hurtle off the rails, the bullet train of privilege still speeds onto campus. African-Americans largely remain on rickety rails, with opportunity often still derailed.

It would be amusing, if the impact on others was not so serious, to pity this pained class of Americans who are not rich enough to legally wedge their kid onto campus by donating millions for buildings and endowed chairs but are rich enough to pay a scammer $250,000 or $400,000 to bribe sports coaches and provide fraudulent academic data to admissions officers.

One could also chuckle at tennis, rowing, water polo, volleyball, sailing and soccer coaches at Yale, Georgetown and Southern Cal, Wake Forest, UCLA, Stanford and Texas for taking bribes of a few hundred thousand dollars. Perhaps they thought they could swim unseen in the same cesspool of scandal that surrounds too many multimillion-dollar football and basketball programs, with lame punishment from the NCAA.

But the chuckles, particularly for black people, end with a consideration that black families cannot play ball in the legal system of privilege, let alone the illegal one. According to a 2017 analysis of Federal Reserve data, 1 in 7 white families is in the millionaire class, compared with only 1 in 50 African-American families. And the wealth gap continues to grow. According to other data by the Fed, white family median net worth in 2016 was $171,000, nearly 10 times the $17,600 for African-Americans and $20,700 for Latinos.

For all the conservative attacks on affirmative action for black students and workers and all the grief those students and workers have gotten for being “unqualified,” they have nothing on the white affirmative action system that remains almost completely intact with legacy admissions, access to often nearly all-white private K-12 schools, expensive standardized test prep and old-boy networks. While many less-privileged kids work at fast-food joints or a city park program for the summer, the rich (achieving and underachieving) have a whole other world of résumé enhancers such as a semester abroad and unpaid summer internships that assume parent support. You could even throw in the criminal justice system, which gives white drug users a relative reprimand while carting off thousands of black boys and girls to prison.

One result is that while some schools may boast that their “people of color” numbers are rising, the percentage of African-American students at top universities remains largely appalling.

African-American students are 15 percent of the nation’s public school population. But among the leading research universities, only Columbia, Harvard, Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis had between 12 percent and 16 percent in black freshmen in the fall of 2018. Only 17 schools are in the double digits at all, according to The Journal for Blacks in Higher Education.

In a major irony, many colleges well-known for their black athletes have astonishingly low percentages of black freshmen. At Michigan, the source of the Supreme Court cases where black affirmative action barely survived, the percentage of fall 2018 black freshmen was 4.2 percent. At the University of California, Berkeley, it was only 3.1 percent. At Notre Dame, it was only 6.3 percent. In the journal’s fall 2017 rankings, UCLA had only 5.5 percent black first-year students.

And unless white America confronts its white privilege, that inequality will continue to play out and shut out African-Americans from our highest symbol of opportunity: college.

Similarly, the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges — Pomona, Amherst and Bowdoin — had fall 2018 freshman classes that were respectively 16.5 percent, 15.5 percent and 13.3 percent black. But only five other liberal arts institutions were in the double digits.

So as spectacular and egregious as this scandal is, the fact that this particular scandal is labeled as “illegal” should not shield white Americans from the express it remains on. A recent feature in The Washington Post on inequality being exacerbated by helicopter or “intensive” parenting said in part:

“When parenting becomes an arms race, the rich have a clear advantage. … Obviously, when you’re holding down two or three jobs, you have less time to drill your kids on math, and you may not have access to tutors, test prep and private coaches. It’s a vicious circle: Inequality leads to the rise of competitive parenting, which further exacerbates inequality for the next generation. We’re seeing that play out in the United States.”

And unless white America confronts its white privilege, that inequality will continue to play out and shut out African-Americans from our highest symbol of opportunity: college.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Pulitzer finalist, 10-time winner from the National Association of Black Journalists and a 2018 winner from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists for his work for The Undefeated. He co-authored Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.