It’s not the speeches or the blunders or the hilarious rewriting of the Reagan era. No, my favorite part about election season is how easy it becomes to recognize class denial in America. The routine has become so commonplace that we hardly bat an eye: poor whites protest anything and everything that would raise their minimum standard of living, from healthcare to housing assistance; meanwhile, wealthy whites (and the wealthy are overwhelmingly white) think anything more than a 35% tax rate for the rich (half of the 70 percent rate when Reagan took office) would be a Stalin-esque slide into class warfare. Poor whites deny the magnitude of their own poverty, and rich whites pretend they’re scraping by like the rest of us.
It’s a good thing we attend such a thoughtful institution, where similar delusions of hardship would never survive a minute of peer-on-peer Socratic, right? Yet it’s that same idea that plagues the wealthy—that they’re “scraping by” like the rest of us—that I find strikingly present at HLS. And it’s that same idea that promotes an even calmer, more insidious class denial among HLS students than the one we witness on a national scale.
It’s easy to mock Romney for coming from heinous amounts of money. I mean, how hard can it be to stay rich when your folks are auto magnates? But the demographics at HLS show that you don’t have to be the scion of a government-backed industry to have it easier than most Americans.
Let’s start with the numbers. Did you know that nearly 60 percent of students receive zero need-based grants to cover the $225,000 price tag of an HLS degree? We all know that the cost of law school is outrageous and that the standardized metrics to calculate family contribution are broken and outdated. But three in five? Really? One can only imagine what this statistic says about the average, or even median, family income at HLS. After all, most “middle class” families—defined as the middle three quintiles, whose incomes range from $20,000 to $100,000—would clearly qualify for need-based grants. This likely means that well over 60 percent of HLS students are “upper class,” like it or not.
There are, of course, a number of students who overcame incredible socioeconomic adversity to attend HLS. But these students are the inspiring exception to the broken rule. The truth is, with only 40 percent of students receiving need-based grants to pay for $225,000 of school, we’re looking at a lot of class privilege at HLS. How do HLS students recognize and respond to that privilege? It’s, well… complicated.
HLS students certainly don’t like to think of themselves as rich. You can hear the class denial in the awkward dialogues students so frequently have with one another. One minute, a student will say he “needs” to work in corporate defense to pay off his loans. The next, he’ll say he “needs” to start making $160,000 to support a family. Talk about out of touch — I highly doubt it takes being in the top 10 percent of earners (not counting bonuses) to support your family.
Many students join socially conscious clinics and student organizations, like Harvard Defenders and Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. Yet how many of our friends went on to work for firms that undermine the very principles of those organizations? A number of HLAB graduates go on to defend the same corrupt financial institutions and practices that forced their former clients into foreclosure. As for those that defend poor clients through Harvard Defenders? Given HLS’s employment statistics, these students are most likely to take their best-in-class criminal defense training and use it to defend wealthy, white-collar (and white) criminals and their corporations.
To be fair, many of these organizations and clinics offer much-needed relief from the overwhelming number of students who fail to even ask themselves this most basic of questions: What does it mean to use my social privilege to further the practices of the world’s most powerful, often corrupt, and politically manipulative institutions?
Perhaps it seems natural. Perhaps it seems silly to even question. Of course rich students—again, those with families that make more than $100,000 (in 2010)—would use their privilege to defend other rich people. It’s as natural as under-funded schools in poor neighborhoods, or windfall profits for polluting oil companies. We’re told this is the world we live in, where the rich have each other’s backs and the poor have nothing. Where nobody deserves a bailout, but only the rich get them. To question that paradigm is naïve at best and treasonous at worst.
So what can we do about it? I am not proposing a school-wide vow of poverty, nor am I proposing a Gandhi-style march into unemployment (though the fear of unemployment is as overstated as the “need” to pay off loans). Instead, I am proposing an ethic of fairness, honor, and honesty.
By fairness, I mean striving for a “do unto others” professional philosophy. Your privilege has likely opened a lot of doors—private schools, LSAT courses, and ultimately HLS. If you didn’t have these opportunities but someone else did, how would you want them to use that opportunity? To further enrich themselves, or to rise to the occasion of their own privilege?
By honor, I mean pursuing work you’d want to tell your grandkids about. Work you can be proud of. Surely you swelled with pride when you got the call to get into HLS—was it really pride about shuffling papers for JP Morgan? Or shoving elephantine Exxon profits into tax loopholes? Or was it pride that you would have even more opportunities—even more incredible, diverse, and exciting paths to choose from?
Lastly, by honesty, I mean being honest with yourself and your peers when it comes to the reasoning behind your professional choices. Enough with the “training” spiel or the supposed “need” to make more than 98 percent of Americans by the time you’re thirty. Pretty soon you’ll start believing the stories you tell to smooth over rough conversations. Pretty soon, the stories will change you. They will turn you into the kind of rich person who genuinely believes he’s “scraping by” with his two houses and three cars—like the rest of us.
Next time one of your declared “progressive” friends makes a crack at Romney or Ryan, ask them what they’ll be up to this summer: Will you spend your career defending the Bain Capitals or the Lilly Ledbetters of the world? And if you were Ms. Ledbetter, working in a rubber factory in Gadsden, Alabama for twenty years, what would you hope the HLS grads of the world would do with their prestigious degrees—and their class privilege?
Or don’t. After all, you won the pre-birth lottery and made it big-time. You did it all on your own, just like the tax-cutting job creators. You’re scraping by like the rest of us. Right?
Sean Hamidi is a 2L. His column runs every other Tuesday.
The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.