In the third season of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, Martin Sheen’s character, the President of the United States of America, remarks that “a kid living in Harlem is more likely to go to jail than a four-year college.”
Felicity Huffman, you recently became a symbol for a culture that assumes that certain children are bound for college, while others are bound for prison.
In the same year that you acted recklessly on the assumption that your kids are part of the former group, you also profited from the stories of five children who were among the latter group in your capacity as a paid actress in the Netflix limited series, When They See Us.
While I acknowledge that you owned up to your mistake and did your time for paying $15,000 to doctor your child’s SAT scores and secure her a place in a good college, I wonder if you are prepared to address the larger problem your troubles helped to highlight.
When I first watched Ava DuVernay’s important and soul-rending series I saw a bit of my students in those five boys: smart, passionate, kind, and already somewhat world-weary kids navigating a world that has never held much space for them. During those crucial years of life when the Exonerated Five should have been in school preparing for their futures, as your children did at their age, they were removed from society altogether and put in prison. Why? Evidently a small number of individuals are accountable, but those individuals acted in concert with the dominant paradigm that harbors this dual prejudice: prison is where our culture deemed those boys ultimately belonged, just as our culture deemed that your children ultimately belong in a good college.
I watched you play your part in telling the story of five teenagers who never stood a chance at finishing school and going to college. What a privilege, I thought, to be one of the storytellers delivering the message of this part of our history to a new generation. And then I started to wonder how much you earned for that gig, and how much of those earnings were spent on giving your children every opportunity at higher education. It was the middle of the night. I got to the end of the last episode starring the brilliant Jharrel Jerome who grew up in the Bronx, where I work, and I was in tears. I contacted a former Bronx Community College colleague, Mark Boderick, who was Kalief Browder’s counselor before his tragic suicide in 2015, at age 22. Kalief Browder began attending Bronx Community College years later than many “traditional” freshmen. At age sixteen, he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack and imprisoned for three years at Rikers Correctional Center because he was unable to post bail while awaiting trial. During two of those years, Browder was held in solitary confinement and assaulted. Upon his release after the charges against him were dropped, Browder earned his G.E.D. and ultimately attended Bronx Community College, where he excelled in his courses and was well-respected by his new community. Nevertheless, the trauma of three years at Rikers slowly took its toll. With Mr. Boderick’s encouragement I wrote a draft of this letter months ago and held onto it, waiting to see what how the college admissions scandal played out.
Parents all over the country with the means to do so seek out more legal, but not much more ethical, ways to get their children into the right college.
Parents of children at privileged schools with the resources and connections to college admissions offices make massive donations to schools, invest in SAT prep tutoring that costs up to $1000 per hour, and have doctors diagnose often perfectly healthy kids with anxiety and other neurobehavioral disorders to buy them more time to complete exams. You yourself put your child through a highly selective public performing arts high school whose patrons donate millions. You had access to the most advanced SAT prep tutoring on the market. If all that doesn’t add up to guaranteed college admission, what’s another $15,000, really?
By contrast, at Bronx Community College, where I teach, our students include young people who attended schools that lack the resources to prepare students for higher education, let alone coach them through the intense testing and application processes.
More than half our students are the first in their families to attend college. We have students who are veterans, many of whom joined the military to avoid gang life. I’ve had students who come to class through bouts of PTSD from being at war. Several of our students are formerly incarcerated, and work triple-time to forge new lives for themselves in a society that fully expects them to land back in prison. When my students give oral presentations, a popular topic is always, “Knowing your rights when you are pulled over by the police.” Many of them worry about this daily.
Most of my formerly incarcerated students would never have spent a day in prison if their families could afford bail, which can cost a tiny fraction of the $15,000 you spent to doctor your daughter’s SAT scores. In fact, $15000 is the average annual household income of our student population. These students leap through burning hoops to come to class and earn their way into a four-year college. And these students have to compete with kids just like your daughters for a place in a good school.
Your actions were based on an assumption that your children deserve college. This assumption reinforces the cultural mindset that landed Exonerated 5 in prison–namely, that all kids deserve the circumstances into which they are born. When New York’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was asked to comment on a New York Times feature story about a homeless child and her family, he voiced the cultural mindset to which I refer: “This kid was dealt a bad hand, I don’t quite know why, but it’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky and some of us are not. It’s not going to be easy for her to turn around her life but that’s why we’re investing so much in training around failing schools. We believe in every child.”
I bet if we asked every parent who has ever participated in the rat race for college admission by opening their checkbooks whether they believe their children are more deserving of higher education than Black and Hispanic kids living in the projects, most would honestly say, “no.” Unfortunately, that counts for precisely nothing. Every check cut to outrageously expensive prep agencies (however “above board” they may be) is keeping a child whose family struggles just to put food on the table out of the running for higher education, in poverty, and at greater risk of ending up incarcerated.
Moreover, many students graduating to become lawmakers and other professional gatekeepers of society often have no first hand experience of racism or classism, and so the problem goes on in perpetuity.
I do not write this to add to your humiliation or to single you out. My intention is to bring to light the moral contradiction of your role in Ava DuVernay’s brilliant series, and urge you to make it right.
I urge you to step up and demonstrate that it’s possible for art to move people to change, to take action, to cooperate and do the right thing.
I urge you to show my students that Now You See The Bigger Picture.
I invite you to donate your salary from When They See Us to support students just like the young men portrayed in the series, who try against all odds to earn their way into higher education.
There are many ways you could make a contribution: giving to anti-recidivism college programs, donating directly to under-served high schools, starting a scholarship fund, or posting bail for minors who are incarcerated and awaiting trial for nonviolent offenses. Encourage your friends to do the same and win back their respect.
The third season of The West Wing aired some 18 years ago. The sentiment that some kids are college-bound while others are prison-bound existed then, and it persists today. We have an opportunity now, before this celebrity scandal blows over, to take real steps to heal this sickness within our society, and you are in the ideal position to take that opportunity.
Dr. Tara Mokhtari