Students walk on the Stanford University campus on Thursday in...

Students walk on the Stanford University campus on Thursday in Santa Clara, Calif. Credit: AP/Ben Margot

The recent college admissions cheating scandal involving parents accused of committing bribery and fraud to get their children into elite schools raises two issues: the myth of meritocracy for the privileged and the continued denigration of affirmative action for the less-privileged.

While most of society will publicly denounce what these parents did, it is in some ways nothing new. People with power and privilege have always done whatever they can to maintain it, while claiming that they simply worked hard and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Then they tell everyone else to do the same, a message specifically targeted toward historically oppressed groups.

Meanwhile, affirmative action has been called everything from welfare to reverse discrimination. It is more accurately defined, to quote the National Conference of State Legislatures, as “admission policies that provide equal access to education for those groups that have been historically excluded or underrepresented, such as women and minorities.”

As a black woman, I have experienced misapprehension and resentment about affirmative action firsthand. When I was in graduate school, a white male student and I were having a discussion on race. He told me he couldn’t get a scholarship when he was an undergraduate because undeserving black students were taking all the scholarship money. He blamed this on affirmative action.

Having myself received one of these academic scholarships, I proceeded to inform him of the reasons this occurred: “I took College Prep classes in high school that gave me honors credits, so I graduated with a 4.075 GPA. What was yours? My class ranking was 32 out of 857 seniors in my graduating class. What was yours? I was named in Who’s Who Among American High School Students. What about you? I was in the National Honor Society, the National Spanish Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta, the National Beta Club, a service club, and I took Advanced and Advanced Placement classes. What about you?”

By the time I finished, he just stood silently. Then I said, “So please explain to me again how I supposedly took your scholarship away from you.” He said nothing further.

My story is not an anomaly. All of my close friends and many colleagues did just as well or better than I did. The problem is that our stories are not told, and this continues to perpetuate the racist stereotype that when blacks succeed, it can only be due to an affirmative action program that gives unqualified blacks the privileges that rightfully belong to whites.

White privilege is real, and this recent cheating scandal attests to that fact. Other, more deserving students have been denied access to a higher education because the parents of less-qualified students have more money and allegedly chose to commit crimes so their children would be accepted to elite institutions.

This is immoral and harmful – not only to those who are being overlooked, but also to the children, who have now been scandalized by their own privilege and victimized by their parents’ illegal actions.

Linda Wiggins-Chavis is a biochemist, currently teaching middle school science in Tampa, Fla. She is also a theologian, author and social justice activist. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by the Tribune News Service.

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