If you were locked in an argument with someone who didn’t believe in systemic racism, you’d pass them redlining maps of major cities across the country. These neighborhood zoning charts, created by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC), labeled minority neighborhoods as high risk for lenders and blocked them from receiving Federal Housing Administration (FHA)-backed loans. It was a deeply racist and startlingly effective method for keeping minorities from accumulating real estate.
If you had just five minutes to convince someone of the failure of trickle-down economics, you’d hand over any random sheaf of the Panama Papers. These leaked documents reveal the lengths to which the rich go to sequester wealth from our financial system and how they protect their money from taxation. Dig through the Panama Papers for even a few minutes and it’s impossible to muster even an ounce of faith in the idea that riches for the few will magically uplift the masses.
Which brings us to the “Operation Varsity Blues” scandal. Because if you had to make a speedy case for the crushing inequity of privilege, you’d simply unpack how a network of wealthy families used literally anything but merit to force their way into highly-desireable colleges across the nation. You’d laugh about some of the revelations that have come to light and explain how the case lays bare the way that wealth controls what was originally dreamed up as an egalitarian system for achieving upward mobility.
You could make this argument about the power of privilege in a minute or two. The machinations of rich families — including celebrities like Mossimo Giannulli, Laurie Loughlin, William H. Macy, and Felicity Huffman — were so blatant in their pursuit of advantages for their children that they provided endless comedy fodder. The case offers up a treasure trove of jokes. It has non-athletes photoshopped into athletic gear, Full House deep cuts, teens getting instructed to “be stupid” in order to secure extra time on tests, Huffman quoting Scooby Doo’s famous “ruh ro!” when a scheme to control who proctored a test for her daughter seemed temporarily foiled, and parents hiding their scamming from their own suspicious children.
It’s also a referendum and a call to action. A reminder that the battle for true equality requires vigilance and a rallying cry in the fight against the outsized sway that wealth holds in America.
FBI special agent says 300 FBI, IRS agents participated in arrests in alleged college cheating scam, named "Operation Varsity Blues"; 38 individuals have been taken into custody so far. https://t.co/eg24f7pl1z pic.twitter.com/iL4lZ6t5CC
— ABC News (@ABC) March 12, 2019
The defendants in the Operation Varsity Blues saga (allegedly) committed crimes, but rich kids getting into good schools without being completely deserving has a long legacy in the United States. As author Daniel Golden detailed in his book The Price of Admission, a college student who’s own school administrators were quoted saying, “There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would, on the merits, get into Harvard” was indeed accepted to the university and enrolled in 1999. This student’s acceptance came on the heels of a $2.5 million donation by his extremely wealthy father.
In Golden’s thoroughly researched book, this case is only notable for the fact that the student in this anecdote, Jared Kushner, is currently serving as a senior advisor (and son-in-law!) to the president of the United States, one charged with, among other things, negotiating peace in the Middle East and solving America’s opioid crisis. He is, in the simplest terms, a living, breathing microcosm of how privilege begets privilege. But aside from Kushner’s notoriety, the story was completely in line with the author’s broader findings — that among Harvard’s 400 largest donors, more than half had sent their children to the school after making donations.
Golden actually coins a term for how the wealthy use their advantage in pursuit of spots at top universities. He calls these behaviors “the preferences of privilege” — a phrase which encompasses obvious situations like legacy admissions, and Kushner-level donations, and more nuanced advantages. As the author writes for ProPublica:
Rich candidates can enhance their standardized test scores with test-prep and tutoring. They don’t have to rely for college recommendations and advice on an overburdened public high school guidance counselor with a caseload of hundreds of students. Instead, their parents can afford a private counselor who discreetly advises the desired university that the family has a history of philanthropy and, in case of acceptance, would be inclined to be especially generous.
These examples are all legal. And perhaps they ought to be. No one would slight anyone the chance to get their kids a little extra tutoring. Or test prep. Or teach them how to fence (which just might help them get an athletic scholarship while competing against a much shallower talent pool than kids playing sports that are ubiquitous across the wealth spectrum, like basketball, football, and soccer). But when rich parents are going so far as to donate millions to schools (in Kushner’s case) or fake charities to help impoverished kids (as in the case of Operation Varsity Blues), how is everyone else supposed to get a fair shake?
There’s no real counterpoint to any of this. Saying that “money makes your life better” isn’t revelatory. It’s pretty much impossible to argue with. Even the hackneyed “money can’t buy happiness” has been proven false up until a certain wealth threshold is reached. The harshest contrarian take against the thesis that “privilege is a motherfucker” is, “yep, for sure… but whatcha gonna do?”
Which is a good question: What do we do? Ban SAT prep courses? Of course not. Level the playing field so that Arizona State (a school Mossimo Giannulli mocked in a recorded call) and Yale carry the same clout? Impossible. How, then, do we ensure a more equitable world? How do we create something approaching equal opportunity for students whose parents can’t buy them proxies to take tests?
Perhaps the indictment itself hints at the solution. When Michelle Janavs, a former food manufacturing executive, suggests that her daughter might not approve of her whole ruse, you can sense her unease.
JANAVS: …the only thing is [my younger daughter] is not like [my older daughter] … She’s not stupid. So if I said to her, “Oh, well, we’re going to take it up at CW-1’s testing center] she’s going to wonder why … She’s smart, she’s going to figure this out. Yeah, she’s going to say to me— she already thinks I’m up to, like, no good.
It’s bold to hope that the kids of parents who would so brazenly manipulate the system for personal gain would one day become altruists, but Janavs is right about teens and young adults recognizing that she’s “up to no good.” Equality, dampening the power of Big Money, and making the college experience more egalitarian all rank highly with younger generations. Millennials and Gen Z genuinely care about systemic racism and the wealth gap.
As the indictments continue and the school year rockets to a close, maybe Operation Varsity Blues will prompt young people to lead the way in recognizing the effects of systemic privilege and help to level the playing field. Maybe the next generation of social entrepreneurs will launch SAT classes that are funded via a different revenue stream and offer free tuition to anyone below a certain income threshold. Or maybe we revive Americorps for Harvard legacy grads to provide college application help to kids who really need it.
“The way the world works now is pretty unbelievable,” one parent in the criminal complaint says, marveling at the lengths he’s going to scam his kid into a spot. He’s right. It is the way the world works. But as the generation of students in question comes of age, they just might decide that it doesn’t have to be.