Felicity Huffman says she just wanted to give her daughter “a fair shot” at getting into the college of her choice. That is the reason the Emmy Award-winning actress paid someone to cheat on her daughter’s college entrance exam.
Huffman pled guilty in federal court to paying $15,000 to have her daughter’s SAT exam answers illicitly corrected by a test proctor.
Huffman, who, along with her celebrity husband, William H. Macy, reportedly has a net worth of $45 million, believed that her daughter, Sophia Macy, was educationally disadvantaged because of a learning disability.
Huffman tried to rationalize her cheating by saying that she only wanted to use her wealth to level the playing field for her daughter.
Most parents want what’s best for their children and Felicity Huffman is no exception. But it is likely that her daughter already had an abundance of the best. Her parents were able to provide her with the advantages in life that wealth brings. In this sense, Sophia lived a life of privilege.
The absurdity of Huffman’s belief that her daughter has lived a life of disadvantage warranting short-circuiting the normal college admissions process is breathtaking. Are we expected to believe that Sophia did not have the opportunity to attend the best schools for her learning disability and to have the most appropriate support systems? Sophia was even allowed six hours to take the three-hour SAT exam when she produced documentation stating that she had a learning disability.
Sophia’ s mother is a textbook example of the type of greed that underpins white supremacy. She exemplifies the people who have so much more than most people but who want even more. Why? Because they believe they deserve it. And that is what, in their minds, makes it “fair” to cheat.
Deservedness is based upon merit in some cases and upon status in others. While we all deserve respect because of our status as human beings, a student deserves a promotion because of her meritorious work. A problem arises when social wires get crossed by wealth, racism or other factors and status is seen as merit. There is no merit in being born into a wealthy family, just as there is no merit in being born white. But racism and classism assign merit to both. And this leads to a false sense of deservedness.
For her crime, Felicity Huffman received only 14 days in jail at the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin, Calif., where at least one hour of recreational sunbathing is allowed from 4 p.m. Friday until 8:30 p.m. Sunday. She also is required to pay a $30,000 fine out of her $45 million in assets and perform 250 hours of community service.
During her trial, prosecutors argued that Huffman should go to prison, pointing out that a jury in Akron, Ohio, sentenced a single Black mom to five years in prison for using her father’s address to get her children into a nearby suburban school district. Prosecutors also pointed out cases in Atlanta where some Black public school teachers and administrators received as much as three years in prison for bolstering school rankings by cheating on students’ state exams.
By understanding the false sense of deservedness that attaches to whiteness and wealth we can explain why judicial outcomes vary so greatly. This also explains the differing outcomes in employment, education, housing and health care.
“A fair shot” to some Americans means greater advantage for them at the expense of others. And unless we find a way to change this culture, racism and classism will continue to fuel the oppression of the truly disadvantaged in this country.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.