The recent admissions scandal involving celebrities Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin has revealed the deep structure of affirmative action for wealthy white families in the United States. Coverage of the scandal has exposed an even longer tradition of legal bribery, in which rich parents routinely make large donations to colleges and universities where they want their children admitted. Recent scrutiny over Jared Kushner’s acceptance to Harvard after his father’s $2.5 million donation exemplifies the perfectly legal channels the wealthy have to exercise their power and influence.
A key loophole that perpetuates both legal and illegal corruption is the outsized role that varsity sports play in the admissions process, widening the path to acceptance for predominantly white athletes in lacrosse, sailing, tennis, crew, water polo, and other “white sports.” Despite the perception that Black students are the face of college athletics, 61% of student athletes nationwide are white, 65% of student athletes at Ivy League schools are white and 79% are white in the Division III New England Small College Athletic Conference. According to study reported on in The Atlantic, at top schools, “athletes gain a 48% boost in admissions, compared with 25% for legacies and 18% for racial minorities.” Athletes are subjected to far less academic scrutiny than the rest of the applicant pool, to the point that non-athletes with comparable academic scores are admitted at rates that are 1000 times lower.
The racial implications of this athletic loophole are no less profound for Black and Brown athletes, whose unremunerated exploitation in basketball and football generate the vast profits that sustain all other college sports — laying bare an accumulation of unpaid white debt for these privileges. These are the structures of white affirmative action that college consultant William Singer exploited by setting up an elaborate bribery and cheating scheme in which coaches, test monitors, and test takers, doctored high school sports credentials, impersonated students, and fixed student test scores to secure admission for his client’s children into elite schools.
While the line between legal and illegal bribery blurs the precise sense of white entitlement that undergirds the scandal, the case offers an opportunity to examine what George Lipsitz calls the “possessive investment in whiteness,” the investment of time, money, and effort to protect and extend what have historically been exclusively white privileges of asset accumulation and upward mobility. The racial stakes of the admissions scandal can be amplified further by examining the cases against two related contexts: the anti-affirmative action suit against Harvard and mounting levels of college debt. These overlapping frames help to capture what Abigail Boggs and Nick Mitchell refer to as “accumulation by education,” a phrase that illuminates the university’s role as a mechanism of privatization and as a destructive agent of neoliberalism. Connecting the myth of meritocracy to skyrocketing levels of student debt, my larger objective is to probe the racialized temporality of unpaid debts, first as a form of racialized economic subjection and, secondly, as a logic of whiteness whose property interests are constituted through historical forgetting rather than forgiveness of debts.
Supplementing Whiteness as Property
The way the scandal has generated negative attention for Ivy League schools bears some resemblance to the anti-affirmative action suit against Harvard, which came in response to accusations of anti-Asian bias in admissions. Together the two cases undermine the premise of meritocracy, and I suggest that their convergence is emblematic of what legal scholar Cheryl Harris identifies as “whiteness as property”: the idea that whiteness functions as a form of property — a possession — whose value is written into law and reproduced in social relations. Whiteness as property thus entitles its bearer to the right to use and enjoyment, reputational value, and an expectation of future privileges that are reinforced and augmented through the power to exclude. Like property, whiteness is premised on an absolute right to exclude an “other” from some use or benefit; thus, the very meaning and value of whiteness hinges on its exclusive character. Historically, the courts have played an active role in enforcing this right to exclude, determining “who was or was not white enough to enjoy the privileges of whiteness.” These privileges ranged from the right to own property (as opposed to being owned), citizenship, naturalization, the franchise, housing, loans, education, and a host of social welfare programs including Social Security and the G.I. Bill. If we apply this property logic to the case of the predominantly white and wealthy parents of applicants to selective schools, their collusion with the consultant’s criminal scheme can be understood as a mode of leveraging their property expectations in whiteness with a cash supplement. In other words, because whiteness alone is no longer a sufficient guarantor of privileged access to highly selective institutions, parents could use their wealth as a monetary supplement to both secure the short-term expectation of admissions and to potentially regenerate a more secure long-term expectation of privilege. The expectations of privilege are thus extended through legal and illegal bribery and fraud.
Turning to Harvard’s anti-affirmative action case, the activist role of conservative white anti-affirmative action crusader Ed Blum demonstrates how so-called Asian American model minority victimization is instrumentalized to serve white property interests. After his failed attempts to overturn affirmative action at the University of Michigan in 2003 and at the University of Texas-Austin in 2013 and 2016 — but successful disabling the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder — Ed Blum turned to and recruited Asian Americans students to function as a racial supplement to the claim of so-called reverse discrimination. As the first case to feature Asian Americans rather than white plaintiffs in an anti-affirmative action case, the suit attempts to justify the claim of reverse discrimination against white students by using a non-white proxy. In doing so, Blum’s organization, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), seized on speculation that Asian Americans suffered a ratings penalty in the admissions process, then moved to construct Asian Americans as “the new Blacks” — the most disadvantaged racial group in the US. As Claire Jean Kim observes, positioning Asian Americans as victims of affirmative action “bolsters the ideological project of despecifying Black subjection and simultaneously disavowing racial positionality in US society.” In the alternative universe that the SFFA has sketched, the ceiling imposed on Asian Americans is tantamount to Jim Crow and race conscious admissions policy is to blame. However, as Kim clarifies, in the SFFA’s complaint, “No explanation is proffered as to how the (alleged) ceiling on Asians would be remedied by not using race as a ‘plus’ factor for certain underrepresented groups.” In other words, there is no rational basis for the argument that removing the floor for other students of color would impact the professed ceiling on Asians. And while it may be true that Harvard’s admissions process reflects an anti-Asian bias, it is also true that the admission of Asian Americans at Harvard has increased by 29% over the past decade and stands at 22% today. However, by promoting the fiction of victimization in a manner that disavows anti-Blackness and the historically incommensurate processes of racialization, the figure of the Asian American functions as a minority supplement to white property interests driven to thwart the redistributive project of affirmative action and to disavow the nonequivalence of racialized subjection. Here Asian Americans are positioned to restore, relegitimize, and expand the property expectations in whiteness, which require state and institutionally mandated forgetting. As such, the Asian American plaintiffs reinforce what Harris identifies as the core characteristic of whiteness as property: “the legal legitimation of power and control that enshrine the status quo as a neutral baseline, while masking the maintenance of white privilege and domination.” Furthermore, the small but powerful group of conservative and predominantly first generation Chinese Americans recruited by Blum have effectively silenced the vast majority of Asian Americans who support affirmative action by claiming they speak for all Asian Americans. This cooptation distorts and reroutes the coalitional politics embedded in Asian American panethnic identity to serve the interests of only one ethnic group. Here Chinese nationalism and conservative white nationalism converge to reveal neoliberalism’s core feature, which Grace Kyungwon Hong describes as an “epistemological structure of disavowal, a means of claiming that racial and gendered violences are things of the past.”
Forgotten Debts and Indebted Futures
The racial dynamics of accumulation by education also come to the fore when whiteness as property — the expectation of privilege — confronts increasingly racialized debt subjection. Student debt has now reached 1.5 trillion — increasing 160% since the height of the subprime mortgage crisis. Figured as a form of “good debt,” student loans are the only type of consumer loan that cannot be cleared through bankruptcy. As Annie McLanahan has shown, $150 Billion of this debt is held by high interest private lenders. Forty-five percent of the people who take out private loans qualify for federal loans, which is the same percentage of people who took out subprime loans even though they were eligible for prime rates. Similarly to the predatory lenders of the subprime mortgage crisis, high-interest private student loans are disproportionately targeted at low-income students of color. This is a mirror of the subprime mortgage market. This kind of debt accumulation, which relies on and exploits the cruel optimism students invest in higher education, is a profitable business that, again, shares key attributes with the sub-prime mortgage industry. As McClanahan lays out, “Public loans are also being securitized, refinanced, and bundled together into Student Loan Asset Backed Securities, which are then tranched and sold to institutional investors, including many pension funds. This means that it’s possible for a professor at a university to be indirectly invested in the debt of their own students.” The university and the credit economy thus work hand in hand in this process of accumulation by education.
In an economic context of increasingly diminishing returns on the investment in college education, the university becomes a principal site for the reproduction of debt subjection and debt forgetting. By bringing the admissions scandal and college indebtedness into relation, they reveal an economic dynamic in which the temporality of white debt rolls over indefinitely while racialized student indebtedness increases exponentially — a dynamic with eerily parallels to Jodi Kim’s discussion of debt imperialism. What rolls over indefinitely is white indebtedness to the legacy of slavery and de jure and de facto segregation, which structures the economic, social, and political basis of white power that translates into wealth or psychological compensation. Despite the presence of Asian Americans in the suit against Harvard, affirmative action is a threat primarily to whiteness as property because it challenges the unlimited right to exclude as a valid aspect of identity and property. Exclusivity, after all, is not an intrinsic feature of whiteness; rather, it is constituted through “the existence of a symbolic ‘other,’ which functions to create an illusion of unity among whites.” Thus challenges to affirmative action reinforce the property interest in whiteness by safeguarding the virtue of original and inherited accumulation of property, resources, and entitlements. And as the student debt crisis illuminates, these encoded privileges are reproduced and heightened through the exploitation of racialized, economic disparities. While wealthy white students expand their exclusive entitlements to upward mobility through bribery, fraud, and the recruitment of conservative Asian American proxies, poor students and students of color have become the raw material for the financialization of education. In the neoliberal university, the value of the latter is their capacity to be indebted. While debt forecloses on the future of poor students and students of color through economic subjection, white debt never has to be paid—it is forever deferred and ultimately, through various monetary and “minority” supplements, forgotten but not forgiven.
Iyko Day is Associate Professor of English and Critical Social Thought at Mount Holyoke College and Co-Chair of the Five College Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program. She is the author of Alien Capital: Asian Racialization and the Logic of Settler Colonial Capitalism(Duke, 2016) and she co-edits the book series Critical Race, Indigeneity, and Relationality for Temple University Press.