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College admissions scandal: it busts racist myths about getting into elite schools

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A massive college cheating scandal was uncovered this week. Dozens of wealthy parents, including actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, have been accused of using bribes to get their children into exclusive colleges. I read the list of the 33 defendants and noticed something: Nearly all of them were white.

As a researcher who studies race and elite universities, I know that when many Americans hear “college fraud,” they associate it with people of color. Whether that’s black students getting into school solely because of affirmative action or Asian-American students pushed by merciless “tiger moms” to do whatever it takes, popular stereotypes around race tend to fuel the idea that people of color are “cheating” their ways into elite schools.

The narrative that black students are given an unfair leg up in admissions through affirmative action is pervasive among critics of the program. The idea — that beneficiaries have not earned their place in top colleges — is damaging to many black students. It ignores the historical and ongoing ways that race shapes opportunities for children in the United States. The truth is that black students on elite campuses tend to come from less wealthy families than their white peers. Affirmative action is one of the few non-academic criteria of admission that attempts to reduce inequality in access.

Then, of course, there is another famous admissions scandal at the T.M. Landry school in Louisiana. An unaccredited private school in Louisiana serving a predominantly African-American student body, T.M. Landry was exposed in November for large-scale fraud in the college admissions process. School officials exploited narratives of hardship among African-American youth, asking students to lie about adversity in their lives in order to gain admission to top colleges, in addition to falsifying transcripts. This fraud played into elite colleges’ love for stories of the most disadvantaged black youth succeeding despite all odds, and the need for unlikely stories like the ones the school fabricated to have a chance for admission to top colleges when a teen does not come from privilege.

Then there are the ugly stereotypes surrounding Asian-American students and their “tiger moms” who supposedly push overachievement through means that many deem unacceptable. In her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua claims that Asian parents push their children to attain uber-high levels of achievement in academics and extracurriculars through means that some perceive as abusive and downright wrong. In college admissions, some worry that stereotypes of Asian Americans as high-achieving but robotic might affect admissions officers’ evaluations, or about the “personality” rating at Harvard that has been under scrutiny in an admissions lawsuit there.

In my research in suburban communities, I’ve found that some parents even suggest that the pressure Asian parents place on their children can affect their peers’ mental health, because it raises standards at school to seemingly impossible levels. Still, I found that black students reported more pressure from their parents than did white and Asian-American students, suggesting that the reality of students’ lives is much more complex than these simplistic accounts.

In contrast to these stereotypes, most plaintiffs in this week’s college scandal are wealthy whites from the top 1 percent. The suit makes clear that all parents, across lines of race, class, and, of course, celebrity status, will do whatever they can to ensure their children’s success, however advantaged those children already are. A small minority will even turn to illegal means, as the families in this case are accused of doing.

While parents always do their best by their children, they have different resources at their disposal to do so. White and Asian-American families, for example, benefit from higher incomes than black, Latinx, and Native American families and face less discrimination in the housing market, more frequently enabling their children to live in areas of concentrated wealth and to spend more money on developing their children’s extracurricular talents. Legacy families are also disproportionately white, given the enrollments of elite colleges in the past, another mechanism that boosts white enrollment on those campuses. The list of mechanisms that promote privilege in college admissions is long.

The way forward is to implement systems that ensure, as much as possible, that families without privilege, wealth, and social connections also have a chance at success. But it also serves as a warning not to place such a high stake in the admissions game. Beyond these criminal activities, privilege will always play some role in an unequal society because advantaged parents, just like disadvantaged parents, will do everything they can to help their children succeed.

Natasha Warikoo is an associate professor of education at Harvard University and the author of The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities. Find her on Twitter @nkwarikoo.


First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at firstperson@vox.com.

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Look at How Much “Game of Thrones” Characters Have Changed Over 8 Seasons

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During the summer of 2019, the final season of Game of Thrones aired. The show had gone on for almost 10 years which is a long time not only for the characters but also for the actors who portrayed them.

Bright Side is remembering what characters looked like in the very first episodes of the groundbreaking series and is comparing them to what they look like in the final season of the show.

1. Cersei Lannister

2. Jon Snow

3. Tyrion Lannister

4. Daenerys Targaryen

5. Sansa Stark

6. Arya Stark

7. Jorah Mormont

8. Varys

9. Jaime Lannister

10. Sandor Clegane

11. Brienne of Tarth

12. Samwell Tarly

13. Davos Seaworth

14. Theon Greyjoy

15. Brandon Stark

Did you watch Game of Thrones? Did you enjoy season 8? Tell us in the comment section below.

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Baltimore’s ransomware attack, explained – Vox

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Thirteen bitcoins are standing between the city of Baltimore and many of the services and processes its citizens rely on after hackers seized thousands of government computers at the start of the month. The ordeal has been going on for two weeks, and there’s no clear end in sight.

Here’s what’s happening: On May 7, hackers digitally seized about 10,000 Baltimore government computers and demanded around $100,000 worth in bitcoins to free them back up. It’s a so-called “ransomware” attack, where hackers deploy malicious software to block access to or take over a computer system until the owner of that system pays a ransom.

Baltimore, like several other cities that have been hit by such attacks over the past two years, is refusing to pay up. As a result, for two weeks, city employees have been locked out of their email accounts and citizens have been unable to access essential services, including websites where they pay their water bills, property taxes, and parking tickets. This is Baltimore’s second ransomware attack in about 15 months: Last year, a separate attack shut down the city’s 911 system for about a day. Baltimore has come under scrutiny for its handling of both attacks.

The ransomware attacks in Baltimore and other local governments across the US demonstrate that as ransomware attacks spread, and as common targets such as hospitals and schools beef up their online systems’ security, there are still plenty targets vulnerable to this kind of hack. It also exemplifies the conundrum that ransomware victims face: pay up and get your access back, or refuse — potentially costing much more in the long run.

What’s going on in Baltimore, briefly explained

Hackers targeted the city of Baltimore on May 7 using a ransomware called RobbinHood, which, as NPR explains, makes it impossible to access a server without a digital key that only the hackers have.

The Baltimore hackers’ ransom note, obtained by the Baltimore Sun, demanded payment of three bitcoins per system to be unlocked, which amounts to 13 bitcoins to unlock all the seized systems. The note threatened to increase the ransom if it wasn’t paid in four days, and said the information would be lost forever if it wasn’t paid in 10 days. Both deadlines have now passed.

“We won’t talk more, all we know is MONEY! Hurry up! Tik Tak, Tik Tak, Tik Tak!” the note said.

The city government is refusing to pay, meaning that the government email systems and payment platforms the attack took down remain offline. The attack has also harmed Baltimore’s property market, because officials weren’t able to access systems needed to complete real estate sales. (The city said transactions resumed on Monday.)

Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, who’s officially been in his office less than a month, said in a statement on Friday that city officials are “well into the restorative process” and have “engaged leading industry cybersecurity experts who are on-site 24-7 working with us.” The FBI is also involved in the investigation.

“Some of the restoration efforts also require that we rebuild certain systems to make sure that when we restore business functions, we are doing so in a secure manner,” Young said. He did not offer a timeline for when all systems will come back online.

The Baltimore City Council president also plans to form a special committee to investigate this latest attack and try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

A similar attack using RobbinHood hit government computers in Greenville, North Carolina, in April. A spokesperson for Greenville told the Wall Street Journal that the city never wound up paying, and that while its systems aren’t entirely restored, “all of our major technology needs are now being met.”

More than 20 municipalities in the US have been hit by cyberattacks this year alone. And such attacks can be expensive, perhaps especially if targets say they won’t pay. In 2018, hackers demanded that Atlanta pay about $50,000 in bitcoins as part of a ransomware attack. The city refused, and according to a report obtained by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News, the attack wound up costing the city $17 million to fix.

Ransomware attacks aren’t new — but we’re still figuring out how to deal with them

In 2017, a ransomware called WannaCry targeted tens of thousands of computers using Microsoft Windows operating systems in more than 100 countries. Officials in the US and the United Kingdom eventually blamed North Korea for the attack. Also in 2017, corporations in the UK, France, Russia, Israel, and Ukraine experienced ransomware attacks. US hospitals were also targeted.

Here’s how Timothy Lee explained for Vox what was going on and how ransomware had become more prolific:

The basic idea behind ransomware is simple: A criminal hacks into your computer, scrambles your files with unbreakable encryption, and then demands that you pay for the encryption key needed to unscramble the files. If you have important files on your computer, you might be willing to pay a lot to avoid losing them.

Ransomware schemes have become a lot more effective since the invention of Bitcoin in 2009. Conventional payment networks like Visa and Mastercard make it difficult to accept payments without revealing your identity. Bitcoin makes that a lot easier. So the past four years have seen a surge in ransomware schemes striking unsuspecting PC users.

Some ransomware schemes are so sophisticated that they even invest in customer service, helping victims who want to pay their ransoms navigate the complexities of obtaining bitcoins and making bitcoin payments.

Since then, a number of sectors and organizations have made improvements to their security practices to protect against ransomware. But the latest Baltimore attack exemplifies what a whack-a-mole game this is: One area improves its practices and hackers just go looking for another.


Recode and Vox have joined forces to uncover and explain how our digital world is changing — and changing us. Subscribe to Recode podcasts to hear Kara Swisher and Peter Kafka lead the tough conversations the technology industry needs today.

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Cameron Russell for ELLE

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A film by Kai Z Feng of our February 2014 cover.

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