Media response to college admissions scandal reveals challenge of class struggle
U.S. Attorney for District of Massachusetts Andrew Lelling announces indictments in a sweeping college admissions bribery scandal, during a news conference, Tuesday, March 12, in Boston. | AP

Americans experienced a Casablanca moment March 12 when federal prosecutors charged dozens of wealthy parents with paying a consultant to help them bribe their children’s ways into elite universities such as Yale, Stanford, USC, and others.

I call it a Casablanca moment because the shockwaves rolling through the media response recalled the scene from the classic movie in which Claude Rains’ character Captain Renault, when the casino is raided, declares, “I’m shocked, shocked, that there’s gambling going on in this establishment!” Meanwhile, of course, the croupier approaches him with a wad of bills: “Your winnings, sir.” Renault is only somewhat discomfited.

Are we, too, really shocked at yet another revelation of the way class inequality continues to benefit the wealthy, providing special access to opportunity and only intensifying and widening the gulfs between classes?

Often these gulfs are referenced euphemistically in terms of “privilege” because Americans live largely in denial of the realities of class struggle in the United States.

Michelle Zacarias’ coverage in People’s World detailed in depth the way this effective program of “affirmative action for the rich” leveraged in the scandal reinforces, even deepens, the divisions and supporting ideologies of class society.

Media coverage by and large, however, in focusing on the corrupt behaviors of the privileged, has evaded a necessary discussion of how class works in U.S. society and political economy.

Indeed, the national media response to the scandal highlights this denial by often diagnosing the problem as one of corruption in our system rather than as a problem with the values and system of class society itself.

Even worse, the critique of the corruption they identify in the scandal, mainly a lack of genuine meritocracy, serves only to powerfully validate class society and its problems, underscoring that a major challenge for achieving the Marxist vision of a classless society is that of confronting and critiquing the entrenched and taken-for-granted values of the capitalist mentality.

And they are entrenched. We can get a sense of this embeddedness when we look at the media coverage and see that while those covering the scandal approached a critique of class in the United States, they often ended up re-affirming class inequality because they levied their critiques through a capitalist value system.

Here’s what I mean. Article after article after article I have read on this matter analyze this scandal to expose the fact that American society is not functioning as the meritocracy it purports to be, where people compete on the proverbial even playing field and succeed on the basis of their skills and talents. James Dickey, in a Sports Illustrated column, reads the scandal as a “subtextual indictment of American meritocracy and its hallowed institutions and loudest defenders.” Diana Elliott and Steven Brown assert the scandal “shows the U.S. is far from a meritocracy” and suggest that “[p]art of our awakening as a society is to accept this and work to dismantle the system that has privileged the wealthy and the elite.” Krystal Ball, although she complicates the matter, similarly argues that what the scandal “reveals is just what a fantasy this idea of a meritocracy—the core of the American Dream—really is. Increasingly in America, your lot in life depends a lot more on your birthright than on your talents, hard work, or other positive qualities.”

Implicit in most of these analyses that decry the lack of genuine meritocracy in U.S. society is the prescription that the cure for this illness is meritocracy itself—just a real meritocracy, not a fake one. The problem, their story goes, is that kids who don’t deserve access to these elite institutions are having these opportunities bestowed on them because of their parents’ wealth, while the really talented kids who deserve it, but might not come from wealthy families, are not enjoying equal opportunity.

I suppose it’s a nice thought, and if genuine meritocracy were actually achievable and really recognized and awarded opportunity to the most talented, U.S. society might be in a marginally better place, removing some of the corruption from class society.

But we also need to recognize that it is precisely U.S. capitalism’s animating principle of meritocracy that creates, exacerbates, and apologizes for the class inequality that enables and largely justifies the privileged in their pursuit of more.

As a culture, we largely take the justness and legitimacy of meritocracy for granted because few people question why a doctor, lawyer, politician, or banker earns a higher salary than a custodian, postal worker, grocery store cashier, fast food worker, social worker, or teacher. Certain work, the belief goes, deserves a higher remuneration than others.

In short, according to the story, people get what they deserve. This belief in meritocracy thus enables us to justify poverty, people not having access to proper health care, not being able to afford college, not being able to afford food or housing, and so forth.

With their thinking shaped by this framework, it has just come to make sense to most Americans, even if we are all performing socially necessary labor that makes all of our lives possible, that some people on the basis of what they do deserve to live in nicer neighborhoods, own larger houses, eat healthier foods, have access to better education, and drive better cars.

They deserve greater access to social resources, a larger piece of the pie. They deserve to consume more.

The outrage the college admissions scandal has inspired tends to be directed at those it deems undeserving, not at meritocracy and the class hierarchy and inequality it fuels and justifies.

The outrage, put another way, is calling for a more “just” inequality in which those who truly deserve more than others get it.

In creating income inequality and class division, meritocracy reproduces a society in which the wealthy will have privileges. It is the poisonous cause of, and not the cure for, the problem the college admissions scandal exposes.

We see this dynamic perhaps most strikingly in Richard Reeves’ piece titled “The college admissions scandal shows how U.S. meritocracy is a sham,” in which he argues that the rich in the United States engage “in various forms of opportunity hoarding on behalf of their children.” And these parents, he contends, “are helped in these hoarding practices by America’s self-image as a classless society . . . they cling hard enough to the myth of meritocracy to be able to look themselves in the mirror.”

Here, Reeves equates a meritocratic society with a classless society with no recognition that it is meritocratic ideology itself that justifies valuing people’s work differently and thus distributing both wealth and power unequally, creating class society itself.

Ball, to some extent, recognizes “the whole concept is immoral nonsense in the first place,” urging us to “move past the mythology of a worthy elite class and create a system that recognizes the worthiness of all.”

She can go further, though. What does it mean to recognize “the worthiness of all”?

Is it just a moral recognition? Or will our moral value system align with how we determine economic value also?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently raised this issue, complaining about people who say “they’re going to ‘send me back to waitressing,’ as if that’s bad or shameful. It’s as though they think being a member of Congress makes you intrinsically ‘better’ than a waitress.”

When we can respect the waitress and her work she as much as we do the Congress member and her work, we will have equal moral recognition of worthiness.

When a waitress has the same access not just to opportunities but to resources, without having to be “more” than a waitress, we will have aligned our moral and economic value systems in recognizing the worthiness of all.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.