(Content Warning: Brett Kavanaugh, Mentions of sexual assault)
Last week, with the eyes of the nation upon her, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford challenged a man up for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the United States. For survivors and allies on campus and around the country, Dr. Blasey Ford’s emotional testimony and Judge Kavanaugh’s angry, aggressive, and, at times, fiercely combative response brought up intense emotions. The National Sexual Assault Hotline received an “unprecedented” increase in calls during the hearings; on campus, Organizing for Survivors hung a banner calling for transformative justice in order to prevent “more Kavanaughs.”
Judge Kavanaugh is not far removed from institutions like Swarthmore. As he reminded us (over, and over, and over) during the hearing, he went to Georgetown Prep. And Yale. And Yale (again, for law school this time). Facing a panel of eleven Republicans (all white men) and ten Democrats, Judge Kavanaugh cited his work ethic, his educational pedigree, and his resume credentials, imploring us to recognize that of course he hadn’t done this. After all, he went to Yale. What went unspoken in Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony was his appeal to his own privilege.
“Captain of the varsity basketball team. Got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School. Worked my tail off,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Kavanaugh could not have done what Blasey Ford accused him of. After all, he did go to Yale.
Swarthmore works to prepare students for elite careers in fields including politics, government, and yes, the judiciary. We pride ourselves on our reputation and our pedigree, while simultaneously trying to downplay our own elitism.
“We’re the quirky liberal arts college! We’re so passionate about what we’re studying! Look, an engineering department!”
We glide over the fact that we continue to be need-aware for international students; that students are routinely unable to attend Swarthmore due to financial constraints; that we still privilege legacy students in admissions. In short, we pretend that elitism, and the sense of entitlement it accompanies, don’t exist here.
But it does. So does sexual assault. Institutions like Swarthmore, Yale, and other prestigious colleges foster the behaviors that create Brett Kavanaughs: a sense of privilege that allows graduates to forgive themselves for any conduct.
Kavanaugh’s supporters asked for his conduct to be forgotten because he was “only 17.” And yet, when we look at Kavanaugh’s judicial record, we see what they really mean: he was “only 17,” and wealthy, and male, and white. Kavanaugh supported mandatory minimum sentences, including those for underage offenders, which impact people of color significantly more than white people. In a country that is over 60 percent white, 65 percent of prisoners serving life without parole for non-violent offenses are Black. While serving on the District of Columbia Circuit Court, he denied a 17-year-old undocumented woman the right to an abortion. In doing so, he added her name to the growing list of women who will be forced to live with the consequences of Brett Kavanaugh’s actions. Not on that list? Brett Kavanaugh.
This is what unchecked and unevaluated privilege can do. As an institution, we have an obligation to look at our own practices and ask ourselves if we are creating, or encouraging, Brett Kavanaughs. The college must hold its students accountable for their actions and work to make a stronger community, one that asks the question: who is forgiven?