I stand on the muddy banks of the Allegheny River and watch my daughter’s paddle slice through the polluted water as if her future depends on it. It just might. She rises at 4:45 a.m. three days a week to train. She’s not shooting for the Olympics, but she is hoping her talent might help her pay for college. My family, like so many Black families in America, is sweating out the college admissions process and the hefty tuition that comes as a reward for entry. While some of us have the twinkle of Ivy League colleges in our eyes, most of us are simply working toward getting our kids into a good college and praying for a little scholarship money to offset what we know will be crushing debt.
We push our children to keep their grades up and their noses clean. We hear the echoes of our parents that demanded we be twice as good albeit for half the gain. We don’t want our children to heave that historic heavy load, but we also recognize that we are fighting a system that is inherently unequal. We’ve never bought into the myth of meritocracy or level playing fields. We’ve seen what money can do. While we take advantage of every opportunity to secure our children’s futures, what we generally are not talking about is who we can pay off to gain entry to our chosen school, what photographers we are using to take fake action pictures of our children on soccer fields, or how we can hire a test taker for our kids SAT. No, we do what we’ve always done—we grind.
When the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts Andrew Lelling appeared in a heavily covered press conference on March 12 to announce that he was a part of a criminal investigation that snared at least 50 wealthy parents, coaches, school administrators and exam takers in a huge elite college admissions scam, Black people on my social media pages let out a collective, “They finally got caught.”
While the newscasters gasped at the audacity of these rich folks who were ensconced in this $25 million-dollar scheme to gain admission into the likes of Yale, Georgetown, University of Southern California, UCLA and other elite universities, the folks in my world were simply confused. We didn’t understand why they chose to give money to a fake charity to do their bidding when there were already legal systems in place that would get them what they wanted including legacy programs, large donations, hailing from top-notch schools. These systems had worked perfectly well for their peers. Why risk this? For the tax write-off?
When poor people of color go around the rules to get their children a better education, they are criminalized. In 2011, Tanya McDowell, a homeless mother, was arrested for sending her five-year-old son to a school in Norwalk, Conn. She was charged with “stealing $15,686 worth of education from the city of Norwalk.” McDowell was convicted of first-degree larceny and sentenced to five years in prison. That same year, another Black woman, Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, was jailed after registering her children in the district where her father lived. Williams-Bolar was convicted of falsifying records. She received 10 days in jail, 80 days of community service and three years probation. These Black women only wanted a better education for their children. Understanding that ZIP codes often dictate educational outcomes, they dared to step over these predesignated codes of oppression.
So, my daughter rows. She is earning her way, working hard for the grades needed to get her into the colleges she wants to attend. She rows, but never fast enough to move past the gilded boats ahead of her laden with wealth and privilege. I think I’m OK with that.
— Cheryl Hall-Russell, Ed.D (pictured), is writer and President of BW3, a boutique Diversity, Equity and Inclusion firm based in Pittsburgh. She writes, speaks and facilitates workshops on women of color and leadership.
Follow her @blackwisewomen.