FOCUS: 'Documenting Privilege' Recap

Friday, Oct 23, 2020
by Joe Shipley, Communications Fellow

On Tuesday, October 20th, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students hosted  “Documenting Privilege” a FOCUS Documenting Privilege PosterSpeaker Series event featuring Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, associate professor of classics at Princeton University, and Anthony Jack, assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr. Padilla Peralta’s bestselling memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League was released in 2016. Dr. Jack’s book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students was named one of NPR’s Favorite Books of 2019. Undergraduate attendees were provided with a free copy of either of the panelists’ books, purchased locally from Source of Knowledge, an independent, Black-owned bookstore in Newark, New Jersey.

The online panel opened with an introduction from Kauribel Javier ’19, the Whig-Clio program coordinator, in which she described the panelists’ professional history and research interests. Dr. Padilla Peralta and Jack both focus on the intersection of race, socioeconomic status, and academic achievement, and their recent books served as a jumping-off point for the conversation that followed.

Jack’s book, The Privileged Poor, explores the cultural, economic, and structural barriers faced by underprivileged students in the United States educational system. Among other findings, Jack makes the distinction between the “privileged poor” – economically disadvantaged students who are nonetheless able to access quality secondary education through scholarships, grants, and aid programs – and the “doubly disadvantaged” students in the same socioeconomic class who have no choice but to attend underfunded, underperforming public schools. Jack and Padilla Peralta noted the marked difference in outcomes between the two groups. The doubly disadvantaged embarked on their chosen career paths on average three to five years later than the privileged poor, a delay that carries real consequences for professional achievement and social mobility.

The paths of these two groups diverge long before college. The difference between the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantaged is preparatory, encompassing the knowledge of how to operate in the highly competitive, stratified world of higher education. Without this preparation, the experience of college and entering the workforce is “profoundly altered,” in the words of Padilla Peralta. 

The panelists spoke at length about the “gatekeeping” function of preparatory or “prep” schools, and the importance of cultural capital carried through generations. Padilla Peralta is an alumnus of Prep for Prep, a New York City-based nonprofit that provides supplementary education to talented students of color before placing them at independent high schools. He discussed the challenges faced by immigrant students like himself –  the “mismatch between the political and cultural capital my parents had built in the home country” and their status in the United States. 

But Jack and Padilla Peralta agreed that political and cultural capital in a student’s family, even if it was undervalued, made an enormous difference. They also agreed that capital was not distributed evenly. Students who were white and/or wealthy enjoyed the greatest benefits, but immigrant students often had advantages denied to Black Americans. Padilla Peralta mentioned that in Prep for Prep, there was a divide between students of Afro-Caribbean origins, and those who were “Just Black,” or “JBs.” For immigrant students, Jack added, “Their father is a taxi driver [in the US], but maybe in their home country they were a nurse or a doctor.” By contrast, the families of American-born Black students were denied the chance to build cultural, political, and economic capital by centuries of oppression, and are now being denied the chance to pass those hard-earned assets to a new generation.

The discussion then turned to the consequences of this injustice for universities and their students. Padilla Peralta and Jack called on universities to do more  – more to confront their own biases, more to extend access to quality education beyond the barriers of race and class, and more to support students in their times of need. “Cluster hires” of faculty and staff of color, they argued, while positive, are not enough alone to change campus culture and to provide students of color with a real support network. They talked about the immense financial strain on socioeconomically disadvantaged students during the Covid-19 pandemic and urged universities like Princeton or Harvard, with multi-billion dollar endowments, to use their resources in unprecedented ways. “Universities,” Padilla Peralta said, “have to think in redistributive terms.”

The panel was followed by a Q&A session, with questions from the audience moderated by Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Mellisa Thompson. This segment largely followed up on topics discussed earlier in the event, such as the feasibility of endowment spending and the effects organizations like Prep for Prep have on the cultural identity of students. One student asked Professor Jack what he would add to a 2020 update of his book. “Going home,” he answered, adding that he would explore what happens when students return home and find out which jobs are “pandemic proof” and whether or not they have access to them.

The conversation showed how much remains to be done before universities can truly call themselves meritocratic. “When you can’t reckon with the multidimensionality of oppression what are you doing” Padilla Peralta asked, “other than playing this game of middle management?” It laid bare the complacency of universities that operate within an unjust system without doing everything in their power to address the causes of inequality. It was a call to action for American higher education.

The FOCUS Speaker Series is a program designed to offer students and the wider university community the chance to participate in meaningful discussions with some of the foremost anti-racist writers, activists, and thinkers in the world. New FOCUS events can be found on the ODUS website or on our social media, so please continue to check back!