The Ivy League: a class-based sorting system

Barack Obama’s election represented a triumph for African Americans who suffered years of race- and class-based oppression. Electing a black president was definitely a plus for African Americans and society as a whole. Among his opponents in 2008 were working class whites who were attracted to Sarah Palin.

Many of these people seem to fit into three major categories:

1. People who were right wing politically and preferred Sarah Palin’s right wing views.
2. People who actually were racist and did not want a black president.
3. People who saw her as an underdog because she did not go to an Ivy League school.

I do not support the individuals who are in group A or group B. However, in our society, we are evolving into a rigid caste system in which individuals no matter how talented, may be held back tremendously if they do not have an Ivy League degree. This discrimination can be seen in companies such as Goldman Sachs and Google.

In many companies, particularly in New York City, career tracks are set up so that Ivy League graduates will be on a fast track to great success and fulfillment, while non-Ivy League graduate will be placed in second tier status perpetually and have no chance whatsoever to demonstrate that they are deserving of a better career track. This process can also be seen in entrepreneurship when direct discrimination and closed Ivy League networks block access to capital. Many working class white-individuals, after sensing that they or their children have been relegated to second class status due to a lack of an Ivy League degree and network may have seen Sarah Palin as an underdog and identified with her.

The Anti-Racist writer Tim Wise has shown a tremendous lack of empathy for individuals who are shut out of the career tracks for lack of an Ivy League degree. Tim Wise stated, “What else but a deep contempt for education (or book learnin’ as we sometimes jokingly refer to it in the South) could explain why Barack Obama’s Harvard Law School education can be mocked as elitist and out of touch, while John McCain’s bottom-feeder academic record and Sarah Palin’s four colleges in six years and degree from the University of Idaho, makes them ready to lead, and more like “normal people?”

The answer to Tim Wise’s probing is very simple: The Ivy League system is not simply a series of academic institutions or even a genuine test of academic ability. Rather, the Ivy League system is a heavily class-based sorting system. This is true even within races, where both white and non-white Ivy League students tend towards the upper economic echelons of their specific races. Class discrimination exists as well as legacy admissions which by definition are heavily class stratified. Perhaps having seen directly or indirectly from life experience how a lack of an Ivy League degree would limit their career prospects or their children’s success, these working class whites gravitated towards the closest thing to a credential free success story –Sarah Palin.

With its legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, historically America has been more oppressive towards African Americans than Caucasians who lack an Ivy League degree. Additionally, Obama has proven himself competent and Sarah Palin did have reactionary right wing views making her unworthy of office. Finally, Barack Obama has proven to be a highly capable president. Therefore, both his election and re-election were definitely net triumphs from a progressive standpoint. However, because of the rigid caste system that tremendously limits the opportunities of individuals without an Ivy League degree, I emphasize with the working class whites who viewed Sarah Palin as a underdog hero and Barack Obama as symbolizing Northeastern elitism.

As a Baruch College of City University of New York graduate, I knew many students, both people of color and white students, who were placed on second tier career tracks when recruited by major companies. Baruch College successfully won some major stock picking and trading system development contests, yet despite some token overtures, Wall Street still recruits primarily from Ivy League schools. Additionally, certain West coast companies such as Google have developed an “Ivy League” only policy. I am surprised that Tim Wise claims that, “Once upon a time elite schools existed to perpetuate the existing class domination of a certain claque of rich. white,Eastern Families.

All of what Tim Wise says in that statement is correct, with the exception of “Once Upon a Time.” While it definitely is true that Ivy League schools are open to a wider variety of ethnic groups and they are no longer as dominated by the children of Northeastern Wealthy Families, they are still an instrument of class stratification. Here are some examples:

1. Daniel Golden’s book, The Price of Admission, demonstrates excellent evidence that development cases (direct buying of admissions slots by extremely wealthy families), celebrity, and legacy cases still have a tremendous advantage to gain admission to Ivy League schools.

2. Even when a student is not a development or legacy admit, the resume criteria and interview judgments are biased towards students who are at least upper middle-class.

3. Even if some students truly are worthy of Ivy League admission, it is caste-like to have an individual’s career process set in stone and determined by whether or not a college admits them at age 17.

In terms of class and race- based employment discrimination, we should view a factory that denies a working class African American man a job as a skilled union worker and relegates him to minimum wage janitorial work and an Investment Banking firm that denies a white working-class state school graduate an Investment Management position and relegates him to a support role solely because he lacks Ivy League credentials as equally morally unjust firms.

Discrimination is unfair. We should fight it at every level of society and view as triumphant, those who succeed in spite of it. Rather than being sorted by race, gender, or class we need to view discrimination as something that no human being should have to one endure.

1 Response

  1. Abner Bendix

    This is an unvarnished and unequivocal look at the economic/social reality, and it identifies a modern version of the Freemasons. It speaks to a strong motivation behind American culture. Jay shows clarity of perception in observing the different shades of people making up the Palin group. And in the last paragraph Jay points to the central question of how this hurtful process can happen in the face of any human decency and compassion.

    In some way the pain of those suffering is being ignored. Maybe it is an ability for an individual to cut off empathy to a select group of people. Some people are assigned less of a value in the hierarchy of the individual’s internal social universe. The judgments of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are spoon-fed to them by culture. It’s okay to ignore the pain of those we consider ‘bad’. So the privileged can sleep at night because they don’t feel empathy for the underprivileged. And the working-class splinter groups within the working class confine their empathy to their own group as well; they are willing to tolerate hurt against someone outside their group. The direction of their empathy is then being orchestrated by a conductor they can’t even see – the economic puppet-masters. So they blame another poor soul who happens to be of another group in the working class, and tolerate their pain. And unfortunately, they take out their frustrations with people in relationships within their own group as well, but when its within the group its done behind closed doors, or sometimes without them even being conscious of it happening, especially when they also hate those whom they love.

    Jay also identifies the process of identification that took place with Sarah Palin, a female working-class hero, propped up on stage to deflect attention from the puppet-masters. Maybe the working class has lost faith in the political and judicial structures, and has also lost faith in the ability of America to provide an ever-increasing standard of material living. So they put their trust into Palin the puppet. What an illusion. How sad.

    That’s why Jay expresses empathy for the working class and is surprised at the more coldhearted tone of Tom Wise. Maybe he too is a victim of selective empathy.

    Empathy is felt as compassion, and if we widen the circle of people within our daily life of relationship who are included in our empathy and compassion, then exploitation becomes harder to rationalize. We must somehow help people to widen their circle of compassion. It seems to be the only way.

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