El-Mekki: Stop Being Shocked by the College Admissions Scandal — America Has Never Been a Meritocracy — and Start Fighting for Real Equity

Actress Lori Loughlin (center in tan) and her husband Mossimo Giannulli (in green tie behind her) leave the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston April 3, 2019. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

I walked by a TV a couple of weeks ago and heard the news reporter mention affluent people — not satisfied with the opulent wealth which already placed them at significant advantage in our faux merit-based system — choosing to game the system further to get their kids into college. While I kept walking, I nodded my head and sucked my teeth as I thought about my deserving seniors of Mastery Charter – Shoemaker Campus, who had to fight tooth and nail to earn millions of dollars in scholarships over the past nine years. America — the false lab of meritocracy.

But what did give me pause was that I’d later hear about how many white folks were aghast about the scandal of rich white folks gaming the system. OMG! I can’t believe those rich people cheated to get into college. America is supposed to be a meritocracy.


America was built on rich white folks creating a racist system and then gaming it even further at every instance that black and brown folks showcase their brilliance and resistance.

Unleashing terrorism on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street, destroying the nascent and fragile baby steps of Reconstruction, the undermining of independent black schools, etc., are all examples of the scandals and afflictions of white affluence and influence.

Paying into wealthy enclaves, gentrified areas, enjoying 10-year tax abatements, while previous residents move because they can’t keep up with the new taxes that come with this type of development, hours of paid tutors, music classes, and internships at an uncle’s Fortune 500 company are all part of the system that greases the wheels for the affluent and adds friction to the tracks of the poor.

In a recent speech at The Education Trust’s “Keeping Our Eye on the Ball: Making Sure Equity Matters” summit, John King, The Education Trust’s CEO and former U.S education secretary, reminded the participants that the folks who are acting shocked about the college entry scandal, but aren’t shocked to action about the national scandal of generational inequity in education, are complicit in this issue.


● White affluent schools have more money than schools full of poor children of color.

● Black kids, boys and girls, starting at age 4 and continuing throughout their high school years are suspended at outrageous rates.

● 1.6 million kids have police officers in place of counselors in their schools.

● Philly schools have been in disrepair for so long, mainly because of their racial makeup, that it will take more than $4 billion to bring them up to par.

● 19 states continue to allow children to be beaten by adults in public schools.

Complacent outrage is as helpful to people who have to constantly declare their humanity and belongingness as safety pins on jackets. Don’t get mad, do something.

King referenced the great Marian Wright Edelman’s perfect description of America’s unjust and peculiar type of racial injustice as “America’s original birth defects.”

This defect in America’s inception continues to undermine progress because it is grounded and steeped in the belief that some, not all, people here are citizens and worthy of the status that citizenry is supposed to provide.

The affluent have always hoarded resources; it’s the American way. What’s also quintessentially American is wealthy white people “tricking” other white folks into “believing” that black and brown people are taking more than their share of the resources. When we look at history, we see that wealthy landowners led landless, illiterate white folks to believe they had a common enemy: free black people.

When I initially heard the report about the college scandal, I didn’t engage that particular situation with outrage, because I’m always outraged. My career has always been centered on fighting for justice — particularly educational justice.

The Hollywood types who used their wealth to push other people to the back of the line is symptomatic of a system that cares more about taking care of the wealthy than the poor and of uplifting whiteness over humanity. This is what is most scandalous. And it is doing exactly what it was built to do.

For the rest of us, let’s recommit to reimagining and rebuilding our educational and support systems from pre-natal to postgraduate to address the scandal that is America.

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