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Rhodes Scholars on Bernie, Buttigieg, and Meritocracy

From our privileged position, we believe that the only candidate who is committed to transforming inequality and creating universal access to education is Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders is the only candidate with the demonstrated experience and will to rectify the systemic injustice in America. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders is the only candidate with the demonstrated experience and will to rectify the systemic injustice in America. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

One of the most widely-cited biographical details about Pete Buttigieg is that he is a Rhodes Scholar. This lends him tremendous credibility, privilege, and respect in most professional arenas—advantages we are aware of as Rhodes Scholars. We know that we have been given an elevated platform for the rest of our lives. We also know that our scholarship is not accessible to the vast majority of students. Even those of us who have struggled tremendously to get here have had a ‘leg up’ or a lucky break somewhere: a unique opportunity to develop our resumés or some special recognition by our teachers, classmates, or communities. The Rhodes Scholarship is thus largely a marker of socioeconomic privilege, as well as a willingness to play by the rules of elite institutions, rather than an indicator of political commitment or capacity. Endowing Buttigieg with considerable political leverage due to his academic or personal achievements—without a broader understanding of his privileges—illustrates how inequality has been recast by elites as meritocracy.

Consider the context of Oxford University, where in 2018 over 60% of undergraduate students came from private or grammar schools. Meanwhile, among graduate recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship, the top undergraduate universities represented were Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Yale. Among the Class of 2019 in Harvard, 16% of students had a parent attend the university. Elite colleges educate students that come from disproportionately wealthy families and private high schools, and that accumulated privilege creates a positive feedback loop of opportunity. The share of students in the 1% that attend elite colleges is already at an all-time high. In effect, most American students are locked out from an opportunity like the Rhodes Scholarship before they reach adulthood. Pete Buttigieg, by contrast, has attended private schools since he was a child

Buttigieg has frequently highlighted his Rhodes Scholarship, as well as further claims to educational exceptionalism (e.g., claiming to speak eight languages), to justify his presidential bid. But the Rhodes Scholarship is rarely the moral litmus test it purports to be. This is exemplified by the Rhodes Scholar who was indicted on US government fraud charges in 2009 and the resignation of a Missouri governor over allegations of sexual misconduct and violations of campaign-finance law in 2018.

Additionally, the prestige of the award attracts corporate recruiters for hedge funds and consulting firms, such as McKinsey, where Buttigieg worked after completing his Oxford degree. These recruiters receive almost unlimited access to Rhodes Scholars and offer large sums of money to those who come to work for them. The mandate of many of these firms is to privatize state assets around the world. McKinsey in particular has advised Immigration and Customs Enforcement on cost-cutting measures, thereby lowering the standard of living for detainees and accelerating the process of deportation. McKinsey has also allegedly advised private pharmaceutical companies to push opioids onto consumers in the midst of a widespread addiction crisis. We consider these to be acts of cruelty and violence, motivated by the amoral logic of the market and neoliberalism. Buttigieg himself is alleged to have been involved in a bread price-fixing scandal during his time at McKinsey.

Buttigieg’s self-presentation as a small-town wunderkind has largely shielded him from scrutiny over multiple and well-documented instances of racism and policies that have been deeply injurious to poor and working-class people in South Bend. Buttigieg has admitted that he was “slow to realize” that South Bend schools were not integrated, demanded the resignation of a black police chief for recording his fellow officers making racist remarks, and aggressively fined poor, primarily black or hispanic property owners. Buttigieg has continued to disrespect black voters and ally himself with economic elites in his presidential run: he falsely touted support from black South Carolinians for his racial justice plan, he has the most exclusive billionaire donors of any candidate, and he has accepted donations from lobbyists with ties to health insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.

Elite educational systems have the power to reinforce and lend legitimacy to an exclusionary social order. In America, a person’s class, race, and family history largely determine whether they have access to quality education. From our privileged position, we believe that the only candidate who is committed to transforming inequality and creating universal access to education is Bernie Sanders. With a plan to eliminate student debt, invest in historically black colleges and universities, and guarantee tuition and debt-free public colleges, he is the best candidate to ensure that other students have access to the opportunities we have had. More fundamentally, Sanders is the candidate most committed to rectifying these profound inequalities, not only in our educational system, but in American society as a whole. This is best demonstrated by his commitment to increasing workplace democracy by fighting for the right of workers to organize unions, which will strengthen social mobility for future generations. Expanding social security, taxing extreme wealth, and establishing Medicare for All are long overdue policies that would transform the country and help enable young people to focus on education instead of survival. Bernie Sanders has been fighting for civil rights since before Pete was born, and currently has the most diverse, working-class base of supporters of any presidential candidate.

As Rhodes Scholars, we believe that our credentials should not be relied upon in lieu of a strong and proven record of public leadership. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate with the demonstrated experience and will to rectify the systemic injustice in America.

Sincerely, 

Jaz Brisack, United States ’19

Leah Crowder, United States ’19

Cameron Clarke, United States ’17

Brook Dambacher, United States and Australia ’19

Oscar De Los Santos, United States ’17

Elena Gallina, United States '19

Hazim Hardeman, United States ’18

Chelsea Jackson, United States ’18

Nadine Jawad, United States ’18

Jordan Konell, United States ’15

Clara Lepard, United States ’18

Anea Moore, United States ’19

Kirk Smith, United States ’17

Zujaja Tauqeer, United States ’11

Thomas Toles, United States and Canada ‘13

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With international support and solidarity from, 

Nur Arafeh, SJLP ’17

Jean Balchin, New Zealand ’18

Sameer Rashid Bhat, India ’18

Gautam Bhatia, India ’11

Tania Bhattacharyya, India '10

Nicholas Carverhill, Canada ’18

Aaron Graham, South Africa ’18

Shruti Iyer, India ’19

Archit Jain, India ’18

Mary-Dan Johnston, Canada ’12

Vinesh Maguire-Rajpaul, South Africa ’13

Naseemah Mohamed, Zimbabwe '13

Isobel Phoebe Montgomery, Australia, ’19

Mutsa Mutembwa, Zimbabwe ’10

Sana Naeem, Pakistan ’18

Mihika Poddar, India ’19

Nomfundo Ramalekana, South Africa, ’15

Iaian Sander, Canada ’18

Joumana Talhouk, Lebanon ’19

Linda Worden, Canada ’19

Jaz Brisack

Jaz Brisack, Rhodes Scholar

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