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Race, Class and Privilege at Columbia University

I am a Columbia College (Columbia University)  alum who just attended his 35th graduation anniversary about a month and a half ago. I posted the following to Columbia University Class Confessions, a FaceBook group for first generation low-income students and alumni of Columbia.  Submissions are anonymous, but I decided to reveal my identity. 

I graduated from Columbia College in 1982.  As for my bona fides for the Columbia University Class Confessions FaceBook group, I am from in el Segundo Barrio in El Paso, Texas, then the second or third poorest zip code in the U.S.A. My mom raised me, with a heap loads of assistance from my abuelita. Neither had any formal education whatsoever. I was fifth oldest of six (actually of seven if you count one brother who died before  I was born).

We were extremely poor by El Paso standards, and inconceivably penniless relative to most Columbia students. This made it easy to fill out the financial aid disclosure form…all zeroes!

I recently attended my 35th class reunion for CC. It was the first class reunion that I attended. Only about 20 or 30 men (it was an all-male school back then, ugh) showed (I am not counting the few women and Asians who attended from the Columbia Engineering School).

Except for one other person, I was the sole non-White alumnus, which allowed those in attendance to relax their guard and open up about and bemoan the odious state of affairs, apparently attributable to the inscrutable machinations of the great unwashed. I recognized almost no one, but every one seemed happy to see their graying, distinguished, and influential counterparts. There abounded the brand of backslapping and glass-raising camaraderie that are choir standards on the golf course: stale, stifling one or two note dirges that made me wonder if any of the lessons from Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities stuck. Certainly Plato or Socrates or Cervantes or Sophocles or Hume or SOMEONE from that illustrious pantheon of “Great Western thinkers” that fed our young Ivy League minds must have insisted that humility and kindness are truth’s prerequisites.

Our dinner speaker, a fellow alumnus and a renowned expert on foreign affairs who was hired by Hillary Clinton to help direct her campaign and who was going to keep our nation on a steady course of intervention and domination of the world’s brown people, could fathom no reason for her campaign’s loss and, like his charge, blamed everything and everyone except himself for the eventual loss to the crazy despot who won the White House (the whitest house in a long time, I may add). The electorate’s bigoted views related to race, gender, and class were not even considered.

That’s the thing about privilege; those who hold and wield it are afflicted by a maddening tunnel vision, an obliviousness to the forces and needs (beyond corporate board rooms) that shape the world. Another characteristic of privilege is that you won’t forgive someone else’s mistakes, but when you make a mistake, well, who could have known?

Dear featured dinner speaker, you would think with all those educational degrees and the prestige resumé (rented out at a handsome hourly rate, no doubt) that maybe, just maybe, you were hired precisely to anticipate any and all glitches during one of our nation’s most pivotal hours and that maybe, just maybe, having flunked so miserably in your duty suggests that the rest of us should place as much trust in the wisdom you and your patron continue to eagerly and desperately peddle as we should in a science degree from Trump University.

That’s the other thing about privilege. No one makes you pay for your mistakes. Ordinary people sitting in the bleachers get fired, jailed, or denied benefits when they falter. Punished, if you will. But you? Blow the election to a bubble-headed clown? Don’t worry, we’ll still invite you to pontificate on TV and at Columbia reunions.

Unjustified hubris was not the only toxin in the air at this reunion, however. I sensed a general animus towards Barack Obama, a graduate from CC’s class of 1983, a year later than us. My classmates conducted an impromptu poll at the end of the reunion to see who remembered Mr. Obama. No one did, which did not surprise me. I suspect the poll was not done out of curiosity, but to cast doubts on our former President’s educational pedigree. My fellow reunion classmates may be exaggerating their powers of perception.

Mr. Obama was and is black and Mr. Obama was not rich when he was at Columbia. Being a non-wealthy minority rendered you transparent, almost invisible, at Columbia even if you were engaging, smart, and accomplished (a situation apparently and sadly that remains unchanged, given the need for this FB group). Mr. Obama was in your midst, to be sure, as were lots of us brown folk. That you didn’t see Mr. Obama then or remember him now makes me sorry for you, but I appreciate your jealousy. He clearly outdid all of you (and me, of course) and he did so without your approval, assistance, and outside your normal, cozy channels of influence.

That you didn’t see me this past reunion weekend and will probably not remember my attendance, well, please reread my thoughts above about not trusting in people who wear blinders and whose record in matters of consequence is less than sterling.

By the way, my wife and I had a wonderful time at my reunion. She and the Columbia staff and administration (who were also invisible to you) were lovely, and my memories of this place have sweetened over time. I did not know that I was so prone to nostalgia.

My wife and I will probably do more reunions, but we may slink away before the featured speaker warms up. Nostalgia can’t compete with nausea.

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