by Valerie Morales
As expected, Lori Loughlin couldn’t fight a system that was focused on putting her in jail. Her guilty plea is a victory of sorts. Only two months in jail and who knows, maybe Covid-19 will cut that time in half. But at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if she spends one day in jail or sixty. The important part of this whole wretched story is what happens when the light shines upon the truth. We know more. We judge more. But it hardly changes systems and institutions.
Because. To be wealthy in America is to be special, and practically, it is to be unique. For the privileged few, to be wealthy is to be eroticized for what you own. It is a decadent envy, but it is envy just the same. Parenthetically, the boundaries that separate the wealthy from the not wealthy secretly flourish apart from the middle class. That closed door would have remained closed if not for the greed of reprehensible parents using their wealth to mock the college admissions process.
Only 2% of students apply to academically elite schools. The majority of them are academically gifted and have worked extremely hard at calculus and chemistry and European history. They’ve sacrificed while their classmates have partied. Students will tell you they want to be millionaires and Harvard will get them there so the sacrifice is worth it.
The hypocrisy in American culture is that dreams, and the more base fetishization of wealth, are condoned and supported as is the sacrifice to get there. But the behavior of the wealthy? Not so much. Particularly when that behavior bestows a favor upon someone who does not deserve it.
The admission scandal still captures attention months after it rocked the unaware. One of the jokes around town, after it broke that Aunt Becky did some nefarious paying people off for her kids sake was, “but USC? Really? Isn’t that low hanging fruit? I mean, you are bribing to send your kids to school in South Central?”
The shading of the rich aside, the memes couldn’t stem the outrage of parents whose children got into college the right way. Considering the country’s often racially hostile and divided climate, it was an amazing feat to knit so many diverse groups together in one isolated fury.
Why so many Americans are generally pissed off at parents they don’t know is that the entire bilious scandal puts a hole in the fantasy of meritocracy. Many parents assume their children’s slavish workload is a pathway to success. But perhaps we can finally admit that the wealthy smash and grab like the poor smash and grab. Both are takers. The difference is the wealthy are romanticized as aspirational because their privilege gives them access to the opportunities we lust after.
They fly their own planes and bathe on their own beaches and bank in obscurity and send their children to elite schools, despite the children’s disinterest, which was assiduously reported in the case of Lori Loughlin’s USC kids who wanted to be somewhere else. The privilege of Lori Loughlin’s kids though is that they could actually be somewhere else. Wealth creates a multitude of choices and shadowy morals as those choices are negotiated.
If you’re an optimist, the scandal and the furious responses were an opportunity to close loopholes. But whatever traction may have been gained during the scandal’s negative light was erased by a pandemic when universities began being sued because of online education.
Yes, rich donors will still be able to use financial influence on behalf of their unqualified children but it will be more mysterious, the how and the why of it. No more middlemen. Just straight up nepotism.
Benefits will be assigned to those who actually worked to achieve them, as the system was intended. But under the table gifts will continue. What will never happen again though is elite universities lecturing us on fairness? A system that rejects 94% of its applicants can never be fair.
Students of color at elite universities talk about being challenged by their white classmates who bluntly want to know if they are qualified. Such hostile accusations, beyond the indignity of white privilege expecting black fealty, misses the elephant in the room. Ordinary whiteness avoids scrutiny occupied as it is with entitlement and policing the authenticity of people of color. There has never been meritocracy or equality.
Those with financial resources are complicit in affirmative action remaining intact while pretending they are victims of a system they have manipulated. They curate a double standard as they are the perpetrators and the financial violent and they are also the scandal’s pariahs, which actually is justice a little too late. But justice just the same.
The college admissions scandal is a milestone in culture to be sure. College is still reserved for the best and brightest. Only a third of Americans have college degrees.
The demonization of the wealthy is F. Scott Fitzgerald old. “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are truthful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand.” Now that’s a mouthful.
The rich getting something they don’t deserve is not a new scourge. The compulsion to gloat when they’ve been humiliated says more about us than them. We sing a tired song that the rich are immorally wicked, and whiteness is decadent and lacks accountability. Privilege though has turned the haves soulless. But the same can be said about those without vast amounts of money too. Think about school shooters.
What is the truest thing about our fascination with the Lori Loughlin’s of the world, and our horror about how they behave in the aggregate on behalf of their children, is that if we could trade places with them, absent the criminality but graced with the obscene privilege that affords opportunities, many of us would want to be them. If just for a day.