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The college admissions bribery scandal illustrates how privilege works

The FBI’s indictments of more than 50 people involved in a wide-ranging admissions bribery scandal is darkly funny, and deeply sad.

More Than 30 Poeple Charged In Elite College Entry Bribery Scheme Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, the FBI announced charges against 33 wealthy parents who are being accused of using bribes to get their children into universities. Among the highest-profile names are former Full House star Lori Loughlin and former Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman. The schools with NCAA coaches named in the indictment include coaches from Yale, USC, UCLA, Georgetown, Wake Forest, and Texas.

Some of those rich people, like Loughlin, allegedly sought to get their children admitted into college by bribing coaches through an intermediary. The idea behind the alleged scam was to get admissions department to treat their children as athletic recruits, thus giving them lower entry standards even if those children never participated in the sports they were supposedly being recruited for.

Defendants MOSSIMO GIANNULLI and LORI LOUGHLIN (collectively, “the GIANNULLIS”), a married couple, are residents of Los Angeles, California. GIANNULLI is a fashion designer. LOUGHLIN is an actress. 89 195. As set forth below, the GIANNULLIS agreed to a pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team—despite the fact that they did not participate in crew—thereby facilitating their admission to USC.

There are a lot of funny details in these indictments — the idea of Aunt Becky from Full House committing crimes, audio of those parents mocking their own children’s academic abilities, those kids being embarrassed in the footnotes of the indictment, parents Photoshopping images of their children, and the fact that this silly process of bribery and fraud has been going on for decades.

In page 13 of the affidavit, Gordon Caplan, a defendant and chairman of an international law firm, explained the whole enterprise:

Okay, so, who we are-- what we do is we help the wealthiest families in the U.S. get their kids into school …. Every year there are-- is a group of families, especially where I am right now in the Bay Area, Palo Alto, I just flew in. That they want guarantees, they want this thing done. They don’t want to be messing around with this thing. And so they want in at certain schools.

So I did 761 what I would call, “side doors.” There is a front door which means you get in on your own. The back door is through institutional advancement [or donating money to the school legally], which is ten times as much money. And I’ve created this side door in.

Because the back door, when you go through institutional advancement, as you know, everybody’s got a friend of a friend, who knows somebody who knows somebody but there’s no guarantee, they’re just gonna give you a second look.

My families want a guarantee. So, if you said to me ‘here’s our grades, here’s our scores, here’s our ability, and we want to go to X school’ and you give me one or two schools, and then I’ll go after those schools and try to get a guarantee done. So that, by the time, the summer of her senior year, before her senior year, hopefully we can have this thing done, so that in the fall, before December 15th, you already knows she’s in. Done. And you make a financial commitment.

It depends on what school you want, may determine how much that actually is. But that’s kind of how the the side and back door work.

Of course, there’s nothing surprising or at all funny about the idea that rich people can buy success for otherwise undeserving children. That’s how the world has always worked. When talking about the case, Andrew Lelling, the US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, said, “We’re not talking about donating a building ... we’re talking about fraud,” a statement that validates one way that rich people openly game the admissions system. What makes the acts fraudulent, apparently, is that the defendants tried to buy admissions in a way that is not allowed, not that they tried to buy admissions in the first place.

While some of the children knew what their parents were doing, many had no idea that their lives were being determined by external forces. Parents were setting up their children for success, while many of these children assumed that they were succeeding on their own.

This is the height of privilege and the problem with Lelling saying things like, “There will not be a separate admissions system for the wealthy. And there will not be a separate criminal justice system either.”

While that’s a noble sentiment, it’s just not true. There are separate admissions systems for the wealthy. Some are legal, and others aren’t, but they exist. Those systems are not a secret. They are especially obvious when universities need donations from rich people in order to function. The system is built for monetary favors.

Of course, those rich kids can be talented and smart and still have doubts and failures. But their failures may not be debilitating because of their safety net. Even before college, their access to better resources gives them an incredible head start over their poorer counterparts. Privilege is also reflected in not even knowing the forces that protect you.

When you’re from a poor background, you always have a sense of being an imposter when it comes to success, and it’s even worse when you’re black or Latinx. Poor people can be dissuaded from applying to high-profile universities because of finances, or the implicit knowledge that those universities aren’t for people like them. And even when those poor kids get to those universities, they’re constantly reminded by other factors — professors, friends, passive social situations, and even by their own conditioned consciousness — that they don’t belong.

So while a poor person and rich person can exist in the same space, their journeys there have often been radically different, and their conceptions of themselves in that space are just as far apart because of the conditions that have surrounded their lives.

Stories like this make it all the more funny and ridiculous when people describe programs like Affirmative Action as pandering to undeserving students of color. The problem that people have affirmative action is that it’s being done out in the open, nevermind those programs exist as a reaction to real inequality. It’s easy to point at people of color as being given special treatment. Meanwhile, the rich are buying their children the lives they want, and it’s only when they’re stupid about it that it becomes a problem.