Getting into the world’s most elite colleges is a bit like playing the lottery.
Harvard University accepted a record low of 4.5 percent of applicants this year, so most of the brightest and best students from around the country can expect rejection if they decide to play that game.
Four years of hard work, perfect grades, outstanding test scores and stellar extracurricular achievements earn you consideration, but no guarantee of admission. You’ll find plenty of valedictorians with perfect SATs who get denied every year.
There’s more to getting in than accomplishments.
So when a young person snags that rare and coveted spot, only to have it taken away, it can feel like a life-altering gut-punch.
The case of Parkland shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv exposed, yet again, how racism and denial operate in America. Kashuv, a senior at Marjory Stoneman-Douglas High School, shared on Twitter on Monday that Harvard had rescinded his acceptance after learning about racist and anti-Semitic messages he wrote and shared with peers when he was 16 years old.
Kashuv apologized for his use of the n-word and “n-jocks,” arguing that he had matured since this juvenile mistake, and that he deserved redemption and forgiveness. He described his words as “offensive,” “idiotic,” “callous” and “inflammatory.”
Tellingly, he never described his repeated use of these slurs as “racist.”
A young white man who had written and shared the “n-word” more than a dozen times could not bring himself to call that action racist -- even in an apology. If a white person doesn’t consider himself to be a racist, should nothing he does ever be judged as such? Can even the most objectively racist slurs be whitewashed as simply “idiotic”?
An idiotic action is different from a racist one. Kashuv knows that, which is why his apology never approaches the substance of what he said.
I was a silly, immature kid, the defense goes. The chorus of conservative pundits echoed that refrain and took it even further. Conservative Ben Shapiro said Harvard’s actions had set an “insane, cruel standard” that “no one can possibly meet.”
Arguably, there are millions of teenagers who meet that standard. “Don’t use racist language” isn’t that high a bar.
The defenders of Kashuv are the same crowd who lecture about “personal responsibility” when unarmed black teenagers are shot dead by the police. Were there similar anguished cries for empathy when 16-year-old Kalief Browder spent more than 1,000 days in Rikers Island for allegedly stealing a backpack? He maintained his innocence and was eventually released without charges. He described the beatings, starvation and torture he suffered in jail, and eventually died of suicide.
He lost his freedom and his life.
But God help us if a white teenager who dabbled in racial slurs loses his golden ticket to Harvard. That is the real injustice demanding national attention.
As the parent of a 16-year-old child, I worry about outsized consequences for immature online behavior. It’s a grim reality of life that anyone can screenshot something terrible you’ve said and sabotage your life choices. Let this be a wake-up call to parents who have never explicitly talked to their children about why racist, bigoted slurs are vile and should never be used.
Kashuv could take away something valuable from this experience: Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. An apology doesn’t erase consequences for poor choices. Being able to admit that using the n-word is a racist and damaging act shows real growth and understanding.
If he chooses to, he can thrive at a state school or community college. He can demonstrate through his actions that he’s not the same person who thought it was funny to write “n-jock” to his peers. He can transfer and reapply to whatever college he wants the following year.
Because the truth is: No one is entitled to go to Harvard.