You probably don’t remember the name Kelley Williams-Bolar. In 2011, she was a 41-year-old single mother in Ohio who desperately wanted her students to attend an elite school in the Copley-Fairlawn School District. One problem: she didn’t live in that district. So she lied on school records and said the children lived in the district all so they could attend the better school and subvert the ways in which area codes and district lines segregate schools by keeping Black kids out of the country’s best schools. She was caught after the district hired a private investigator to film her driving her kids into the district. The crime, according to the district, was that her kids were experiencing an education that Williams-Bolar’s taxes weren’t paying for (I wonder how much the private investigator cost taxpayers). As a result, Williams-Bolar was arrested and sentenced to 10 days in county jail and three years probation.
Fast forward to 2019. An FBI investigation revealed that 50 people, including famous actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to rig standardized tests and admissions procedures to get their kids into top colleges like USC, Yale and Stanford. The parents would photoshop their kids’ faces on athletes and pass the photos off as proof of high school extracurricular activities. They had their kids’ SAT answers changed, rigging the system of accommodations in place for students with special needs. They paid college officials and ensured that their kids were placed in the country’s most elite institutions.
The cases of the parents in 2019 and Williams-Bolar in 2011 at first may not seem particularly related. But they both show how access, money and systematic advantages in place determine who gets to move up the societal ladder. A whole private investigator was hired to keep one Black woman’s children out of public schools while wealthy white parents were allowed to defraud the college system for years. And there are thousands of parents across the country like Williams-Bolar who are imprisoned for trying to get their kids better educations.
The irony here is that if the 50 parents who allegedly committed fraud never had to go to such lengths to ensure the best education for their kids. After all, it’s white people who benefit most from affirmative action in the form of legacy and donor admissions. If these parents were smarter, they could have simply donated money directly to the schools to fund new buildings and equipment as families who do so often get the benefit of admission. Ask Harvard. Or these parents could have pulled their kids up by their bootstraps and put that money towards actual tutors and academic help to get real grades and real inclusion into team sports.
White America has spent the better part of the last few decades railing against affirmative action under the belief that it dilutes the college admissions system with under-qualified students of color. But the truth here is that it has always been white people who have used legacy and donations to get their kids into elite institutions (even though white people don’t need elite educations, or really any higher education at all, to get the same lines of credit, salary and financial security as their Black counterparts). This latest scandal is just another way that the white and wealthy often get what they want in this country by bending and breaking the rules to their liking. This time, they happened to get caught. But to get caught, you have to break the rules and the rules already tilt so far in rich white people’s favor that breaking the law to achieve an even greater advantage reeks of either hubris or laziness or both.
I’ve played golf with white folks a few times here in Atlanta and the conversations inevitably shift to my education because, of course they do. Three of those times the white men I’ve told about the school I went to — an “elite” mostly-white liberal arts school — eyed me up and down and mentioned that they couldn’t get their kid into that school. Then they inevitably ask if I got there on a scholarship. But they don’t want to know if I got there on any scholarship. They want to know if I got there on a capital M minority scholarship. They just want to know because confirmation would make them feel better about insecurities over their or their kids’ inability to get into a school this Black guy got into.
They inevitably get around to asking me if I play basketball.
This is what happens when you’re black in white schools. We’re made to feel like we don’t belong or we’re there as a bastardization of the college admissions process when we are the people who have to jump through the most hoops and climb the steepest mountains to get to schools that oftentimes don’t want us there. All the while, it’s the white parents and students who benefit from the real affirmative action while railing against attempts to level the playing field.
Meanwhile, Black parents are in and out of jail by the thousands for just trying to get their kids into elementary schools that provide adequate education, let alone colleges. Today wasn’t a day of justice being served. It was a reminder of a series of broken games and who gets to win and who never even gets a chance to step foot in the arena.
David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the internet.