Columns, Opinions

Foster ’19: Class cluelessness

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 8, 2018

Over winter break, a fight — as fights often do — broke out on the internet.

Brown Bears Admirers, a Facebook group where Brown students submit anonymous posts, published a submission in which a user jokingly outlined their plan to destroy all Canada Goose coats on campus. In a responding post, another user fired back, “I know this post will be controversial, but I don’t care because I am hurting and need to speak out. I love my Canada Goose and shaming people for wearing canada goose is bullying.” It’s unclear whether the post — which continued to detail how the author hated being condemned for owning expensive outerwear that they didn’t even ask their parents to buy for them — was a genuine response or an artful piece of satire.

At any rate, these posts spawned discussion on other anonymous pages. Users continued to argue back and forth, with some commenters suggesting that their peers were jealous, bitter or discriminatory because of the jokes they cracked at the expense of Canada Goose coat wearers. Others argued that Canada Goose coats were actually a very practical investment because of their ability to last for many years. These posts, taken together, show how Brown’s largely wealthy student body struggles to constructively engage with class disparities on our campus and in our country.

For the most part, the Canada Goose mockery on Brown’s campus is tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a current of frustration that runs beneath the jokes students crack. Seeing gaggles of students clad in coats whose cost hovers around a thousand dollars apiece is a reminder that Brown is richly populated with the children of America’s wealthiest. In 2017, the New York Times reported on a study that used tax data to gain insight into college attendance and economic mobility. Study results revealed that approximately a fifth of Brown’s student body comes from families in the top one percent of income earners. Between 1999 and 2013, 70 percent of Brown students came from families in the top 20 percent of earners. The study also showed that the median income of Brown students’ families was $204,200 per year. To put this number in perspective, the median income for a family in the United States was $57,617 in 2016. These data showed us something we already knew — elite institutions, despite their recent turn toward increasing socioeconomic diversity in their student bodies, are still primarily comprised of very wealthy students.

Several commenters called on their peers to stop complaining and go earn themselves a Canada Goose coat. This is certainly possible — data show that 53 percent of poor students at Brown ended up in the top 20 percent of income earners as adults. Certainly, this would give them the disposable income to buy their own status-symbol coat, but it misses the point.

The collective groan over Canada Goose coats isn’t actually about outerwear. The parade of luxury coats that emerges on Brown’s campus in full force each winter is a reminder that we are living in a deeply divided society that clusters wealth and access to opportunity (read: attending an elite university) in the hands of the few. In 2002, Brown became the last member of the Ivy League to introduce need-blind admission. Fifteen years later, some progress has been made. The percentage of Brown undergraduates with no expected parental contribution to their tuition is 35 percent. But still, 58 percent of Brown students in the class of 2019 receive no need-based financial aid at all. That is, their families are on the hook for the approximately $70,000 a year it costs to send a child to Brown. Our institution is still disproportionately full of the children of the ultra-wealthy.

The most bizarre thing about watching the Canada Goose debacle unfold online was how few students seemed to grasp how absurd the entire thing was. There seemed to be little recognition of the fact that a $900 status-symbol coat is not a practical middle-class purchase. But our society isn’t just intensely class stratified — it is also class segregated. Wealthy families live and work around other wealthy families, which largely insulates them from any meaningful interaction with those who don’t share their income bracket. Surrounded by others of the same ilk, many rich people have no idea just how rich they are. It comes as no surprise, then, that a student body like Brown’s has no clue why others might roll their eyes as flocks of Goose-clad students stroll around campus. Unless Brown students develop a more robust awareness of the realities of income disparity in America, campus dialogue about class will remain stunted ­­­­— or worse, largely nonexistent. Hopefully, the anonymous internet infighting we witnessed this winter will help spark the conversation about class Brown so desperately needs.

Ruth Foster ’19 can be reached at ruth_foster@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.