Alumni Column: The Privilege Principle

The three and half hour schlep through the bucolic mountainside and winding two-lane highways of the Chenango Valley remains the perfect backdrop to vivid memories of my collegiate experience.  

During my quiet road trips from the “Rotten Apple” to Hamilton, I often wonder how my college years could have played out differently had I known what I know now. I wonder, for example, how a different understanding of privilege could have engendered deeper and perhaps more meaningful thinking and discourse among my co-ed peers. At the time, my myopic view framed the opportunity to attend one of the nation’s top universities as a reward for my best efforts in high school. It was unfathomable that my college acceptance could somehow be inextricably bound to opportunities or denial of opportunities others would have. I have in recent years come to appreciate my place in the class entering the university in the fall of 1990. I have also been increasingly fascinated by the irony of how my post-graduation life mirrors key tenets of the university’s mission: “emphasizes individual and social responsibility to serve the less fortunate.”

Michael Sandel, using Anthony P. Carnevale and Stephen J. Rose’s study of economic diversity among 146 Top Colleges, cites the notion of privilege in a series of classroom discussions on the difference principle. Sandel asserts that 75 percent of students enrolled in those top colleges come from the richest 25 percent of income earners in the United States. The next 17 percent of those students come from the upper middle 25 percent and another five percent from the lower 25 percent of middle class earners. The last three percent of students enrolled at those top colleges come from the poorest 25 percent of income earners. (Only eight percent of all kids growing up in low income communities across the nation graduate college, whether distinguished as top or other, by age 24.) Think about how someone arriving at a top college, isolated by geography, culture and finances could appreciate the privilege of being among the three percent. Then think about the 97 percent, from similar circumstances, who are not afforded that same position. Do the same exercise for each of the aforementioned subgroups, then ask yourself what responsibilities you should have for those not among your subgroup. For some of you, the process will be worthwhile in contextualizing your good fortune and privilege. For others, it will be an opportunity to determine what ought to be done to reframe understandings of opportunity and access.

While my memories support the idea that I could have taken greater advantage of my privilege as a student, there are some significant moments of my experience that prepared me for life beyond Colgate. In the wake of last year’s sit-in and campus protests, I re-connected with a few classmates to discuss our student-led response to the verdict in the Rodney King trial. It was April 29, 1992 and there was a crisp breeze moving slowly up the hill as if to cool the fervor boiling within many of the marchers, who had been lamenting the distrust of police and latent racial tensions that permeated the shadows of the college village. The crowd of demonstrators eased down Broad Street before gathering on the Village Green for a rally. The cries heard today on the heels of the highly publicized cases of disregard for life and the rights of certain members of society are mere echoes of that night and other endless nights before. The nights when people wanted to say or do something about injustice, but somehow felt disempowered. I remember being invited to address the crowd. I remember sharing with a multicultural group of the Colgate community that the remedy to eroding social injustice lies in teaching. I beseeched those in attendance to go teach about tolerance and patience in matters of race. Even though I was a sophomore and I hadn’t started thinking about my professional life, I remember feeling I had a greater responsibility to both those who marched with me that night and to others for whom we marched. I know many students on campus are in that same space today.

At times, it feels a little disturbing that there is still a need to protest these kinds of atrocities in the United States. It is indeed incomprehensible that in 2015 with our nation’s first black president serving his second term, the strain of race tensions persist. This presidency is supposed to symbolize the realization of Martin Luther King’s dream and earmark the dawning of a new day in America. Yet, we are still haunted by hatred and bigotry now cloaked in hateful texts on social media platforms or streaming live from every municipality in cities big and small. While I have not yet lost all hope, I do know it is imperative that we face the issues head on. Let us not dilute the challenge by inserting misguided language about increased diversity, or even underscore the often overused sub-text about the “criminal” backgrounds of those victimized in the most highly publicized examples of these tragedies. Instead, let’s talk about the misconceptions of race on all sides of the debaters in the public square. Let’s engage in honest conversations aimed at getting to know the “other” while leaving judgments and preconceptions to those less privileged than those of you chosen to participate in the Colgate community.  

It is only in dialogue and “speaking out” that we will have assurances that one day there will be universal appreciation for our humanity.