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William Tomasko '13: White people have a tortured relationship with the Ivy League.

Correction appended.

That's according to Stuff White People Like, a satirical blog that aims to describe the tastes of upper-class, hipster-y, progressive yuppies (who aren't, of course, actually all one race). The complete list of stuff they like includes Bob Marley, expensive sandwiches, David Sedaris, "knowing what's best for poor people" and "self-aware hip-hop references."
The blog says "white" people like the Ivy League because it is "expensive, exclusive, located in the North East and features beautiful old buildings." However, according the post, the same yuppies simultaneously resent those schools for that same exclusivity.

While the blog is mostly trying to be funny, the goal of its satire is also to expose some truth, and the Ivy League can certainly be a target for criticism because of its elite image. In popular consciousness, the eight member schools are often seen as bastions of old money, out of reach for average Americans.

Apparently, the Ivy League's image is even influencing one prominent national commentator's opinion on who President Barack Obama should pick to fill the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy.

Bill Kristol is a writer for The Weekly Standard who graduated from Harvard and now teaches there. He appeared April 11 on Fox News Sunday and explained why he'd like to see a Supreme Court nominee who did not graduate from an Ivy League law school: "I think it would be good to have a nominee that stood up against powerful interests like the elite law schools, which are a powerful interest in the U.S. and have done a lot of damage."

Soon-to-be-retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens is the only member of the high court who didn't go to an Ivy League law school — he graduated from Northwestern in 1947. All eight of the other justices got their JDs from either Harvard or Yale.

Among Obama's alleged top-three finalists for the nomination, only one, Judge Diane Wood, did not attend an Ivy League law school. She attended the University of Chicago.
Kristol's commentary demonstrates backlash against the perceived elitism of the Ivy League. However, when one more thoroughly considers the current justices' backgrounds, his example also illuminates the superficiality of assumptions about students and graduates from those eight schools.

For example, Justice Sonia Sotomayor may have gotten her JD from Yale Law School after graduating from Princeton University, but before that, she lived in public housing in the Bronx, and her father never got more than a third-grade education.

Justice Samuel Alito, another Princeton Tiger and Yale Law grad, is the son of Italian immigrants. In his confirmation hearings, he said his Supreme Court jurisprudence would be influenced by "people in my own family who suffered discrimination because of their ethnic background or because of religion or because of gender."

In her confirmation hearings, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Cornell '54, Columbia Law School '59) also recalled her family's experience with discrimination: "I have memories as a child … of being in a car with my parents and passing a place in (Pennsylvania), a resort with a sign out in front that read, ‘No dogs or Jews allowed' … One couldn't help but be sensitive to discrimination living as a Jew in America at the time of World War II."

If Obama is looking for a nominee from a relatively non-privileged background, he is surely considering more than what athletic conference her or his law school belonged to.

As representatives of Brown, we can try to challenge the perception of our institution's alleged elitism and exclusivity. I know I was attracted to Brown because the students here struck me as un-pretentious and hard-working, confounding any Ivy League stereotype of elitist entitlement. However, the perception of the Ivy League as elitist hasn't faded in social consciousness. It's up to our behavior to disprove it.

Through policies such as financial aid, Ivy League universities can work to diminish impressions of exclusivity. Brown is encouragingly increasing its financial aid budget during the present economic downturn. Even though accessibility can never be fully assured, measures to broaden it can improve the Ivy image while tangibly helping students.

Brown could demonstrate that it doesn't covet prestige by abstaining from the U.S. News and World Report rankings system — as I've argued here before ("Rankings schmankings," Feb. 8). Doing so — and encouraging peer schools to follow suit — would signal a focus on quality rather than competitive preening.

The athletic conference our school happened to join decades before any of us were born may influence how some perceive us, but that doesn't have to be inevitable.

William Tomasko '13 is an undecided concentrator from Washington, D.C.  He can be reached at william_tomasko at brown.edu.

A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that every Supreme Court justice except John Paul Stevens graduated from either Harvard or Yale Law School. In fact, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School, a fact stated elsewhere in the column. The column also incorrectly stated that Judge Diane Wood graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. In fact, she graduated from the University of Texas School of Law.




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