Felicity Huffman, White Privilege, and our broken Justice System

Sep 24 · 9 min read

by Brian Moniz

Last Friday, Felicity Huffman was finally sentenced in court for her part in the infamous college bribe scandals happening all over the country. Huffman is just one of 51 other celebrities and rich parents who bribed admissions counselors, SAT moderators and sports coaches to get their children into top-tier universities. Having earned fame and fortune for starring in the hit TV show Desperate Housewives, Huffman found it necessary to pay a SAT moderator $15,000 to change her daughter’s scores to help her get accepted into University of Southern California. After pleading guilty in hopes that coming clean would lead to a softer sentence, Huffman was sentenced to fourteen days in jail, 250 hours of community service, and must pay a $30,000 fine.


This story is just one of many getting national attention, but for every one we hear of, admissions counselors are admitting that the practice of super rich parents bribing their kids’ way into a great school is more common than you think and has been happening for decades. More often the parent/guardian trying to get their child into a school will make a “donation” to the school during the time when colleges are making decisions on who to accept and who to reject. Parents have “donated” anything from new football uniforms to new science equipment to funding for new buildings on campus. The degree of bribing varies on how well or poor the kid scores on their entrance exams.

A big dark cloud looming over Huffman’s case and others like her is that it seems like these celebrities are going to get lighter sentences because of their fame, wealth, and yes, because they are white. Let me submit to you a few examples of cases in the past where parents of color experienced similar situations of “fraud” and paid for it with truly extreme, unnecessary punishments.

Kelley Williams-Bolar, a black woman from Akron, Ohio living in public housing, was convicted and imprisoned for using a fake address to help get her kids into a better public school. The home and neighborhood she was living in with her two daughters was run-down and dangerous. After having her house broken into, Williams-Bolar sent her kids to live with their grandfather who lived in the upper-class suburbs. The girls would spend their time bouncing back and forth between their home with their mother, and the nicer home with their grandfather. His district has a school with exceptional standards, a science lab and greenhouse, superb after-school programs and clubs, and access to a better education which will lead to more opportunities for the girls in the future.

Soon after she enrolled her kids in the higher quality school, Williams-Bolar began to notice that she was being followed. It turned out the school district hired a private investigator to prove the suspicion that her children were “out of bounds.” Both she and her father were fined and charged with felonies of “falsification of records” and “theft of public education.” She was sentenced to two concurrent five-year sentences in prison. The judge at the time claimed he wanted to make an example of her to all parents considering “district-hopping,” (also known as “residency fraud.”)

In 2011, Tanya McDowell, a homeless black mother living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, lived in a van with her then 5-year-old son and had no address to put down for his enrollment into public school. She put down her friend/babysitters address to get her son into a better public school, was caught, and sentenced to five years in prison for “first-degree larceny” and “conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny.” After she served her time in prison (which ended up being reduced to three years in prison and three years of probation after), McDowell was ordered to pay $6,500 in back tuition. McDowell’s friend was fined for allowing her address to be used, ended up becoming homeless herself, and lost custody of her own children.

Many private investigators who deal with “district-hopping” have come forward to shine a light on the unfairness and racism being used in these types of situations, admitting that the gross majority of cases such as these with white parents end in one of three ways:

  • The family/parents of the child/children in question must move into a home in the district of the school they want their kids to be enrolled into or their child will be “bounced out.”
  • The family will receive a fine and the kids will be unenrolled from the better school.
  • The school will find out about the district-hopping and simply “look the other way.”

The third option is said to be, by far, the most common, with school districts either not caring too much about the district hopping or just finding out and not saying anything for the sake of the kids in question — sparing them from having to deal with the drama and stress of having to move, make new friends, and be dumped into a school of lesser quality. Some private investigators also admit that most often when a black child is suspected to not be from the proper district, the tip-offs to the school come from white parents who believe that an out-of-bounds family is “stealing an education.” If Felicity Huffman’s daughter was not accepted to UCSC, I’m sure she still could have got into many other colleges and universities. These black parents were just desperately trying to get their younger children into a better elementary school to give them a fighting chance at going to college at all someday, so they don’t end up homeless, too.

Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell’s stories are just two of thousands of cases where low-income, disadvantaged families manipulate addresses to sneak their children into a better school. It is hard to say “don’t make this a race thing” when you look at the evidence and past court cases, and lower-income people of color are not only more likely to be charged with a crime, but serve ridiculously harsher punishments. Why does it always seem like judges only ever want to “set an example to the rest” when they have a person of color in front of them? White people either get charged with a misdemeanor or receive a slap on the wrist. Rule of law comes down hard on the poor, and the rich and well-off get off the hook.

Still think these cases are cherry-picked flukes and that being white has nothing to do with it? I’ve got two words for you: Brock Turner.

Brock Turner is the white college jock who back in 2015 raped and assaulted an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, was only sentenced to serve six months in prison, and ended up only serving three months. In 2016, a black college student from Kansas named Albert Wilson was sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in prison for raping a fellow student. Need more?

In 2014, Conrad Hughes Hilton — Paris Hilton’s little brother — was arrested after disrupting the peace on a British Airways flight from London to Los Angeles. He tried to smoke pot and cigarettes over twenty times in the bathroom, disabled the smoke detector, told the crew “I am going to kill you,” physically fought with flight attendants and told them, “I can get you all fired in five minutes! I know your boss!” When the flight crew told him that he was making the other passengers uncomfortable, he shouted, “I will own f****** anyone on this flight! They are f****** peasants!” When the crew finally had to physically restrain him, he shouted “My father will pay this out! He has done it before! Dad paid over $300,000 last time!” When Hilton appeared in court a year later over these charges, his lawyer argued that Hilton was under the influence of sleeping pills which clouded his judgment, and it worked — Conrad Hilton was only sentenced to 750 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine even though he committed enough felonies to get him 20 years in prison.

Ethan Couch is a white young man from Texas who back in 2013, when he was 16 years-old, drove drunk at night, struck and killed four pedestrians and injured another nine, resulting in “intoxication manslaughter”. Prosecutors asked for the maximum 20-year sentence. In court he plead a condition called “affluenza.”

Affluenza: Noun — a psychological malaise supposedly affecting wealthy young people, symptoms of which include a lack of motivation, feelings of guilt, and a sense of isolation.

Couch’s lawyer argued that, “he [Couch] didn’t know boundaries because his rich parents didn’t give him any.” Couch was sentenced to serve a 90-day treatment at Newport Academy, a high-end rehabilitation center that specializes in mental health and offers massages, horseback riding, swimming and basketball.


Kelley Williams-Bolar: Falsification of records — 10 years prison (two 5-year sentences).

Tanya McDowell: 1st-degree larceny, conspiracy of 1st-degree larceny — 5 years prison, $6,500 fees.

Albert Wilson: Sexual assault — 12 years in prison.

4 total charges between three people: 27 years of prison time and $6,500 in fines and fees.

Felicity Huffman: Conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest mail fraud — 14 days prison, $30,000 fine, 250 hours community service.

Brock Turner: 2 rape charges, 2 felony sexual assault charges, 1 attempted rape — six months jail.

Conrad Hughes Hilton: one charge of assault — 750 hours of community service, $5,000 fine.

Ethan Couch: 4 counts of intoxication manslaughter, 2 counts of intoxication assault — 10 years probation, forced into a rehabilitation clinic.

14 total charges between four people: 6 months, 14 days of prison time, $35,000 in fines and fees, 1000 hours of community service and 10 years of probation.

It is plainly obvious that being white, rich, and/or famous in America lets you get away with much more than the normal person, if not everything; and being a person of color almost guarantees maximum punishment. Felicity Huffman plead guilty to her crimes and is receiving a small sentence. What will going to jail in her case solve? If the prosecutors and the state really wanted to right this wrong, Huffman and anyone else in her situation should be forced to pay for another student’s full ride to whichever university they bribed their kids into. Giving a chance to someone else whom they took a spot away from by sneaking their own kids in. Whoever was the next student in line to get accepted into that school and didn’t should have their entire four years of tuition personally paid for by Huffman and those like her. Going to prison for fourteen days is a punishment, but it is a punishment that doesn’t help the victims — the other kids who were rejected from the school.

Singer John Legend has been very vocal in the media about these college scandals and wanting to point out the white-privilege, but he goes a step further by arguing that the way to correct it is not to serve Felicity Huffman-types with a harsher sentence, but to lower the sentence and severity of these types of crimes for people of color and all others as well. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but if you are a judge and want to make an example of someone to anyone else who might be considering committing a crime, wouldn’t you think that a high-profile, well-known celebrity with the world’s eye on her would be a better place to start than a homeless black woman with no money, power or celebrity status?

Brian Moniz is from San Jose, Calif. He studied filmmaking and writing at San Jose State University from 2010–2013 and got his bachelor’s degree in Radio-TV-Film. Throughout his high school and college years, he worked as a music and movie journalist and critic. Having only recently come out of the closet himself in 2014, Brian enjoys writing about LGBTQ issues. His only regret when it comes to his sexuality is that he didn’t come out sooner.

Matthew’s Place

MatthewsPlace.com is a program of the Matthew Shepard Foundation| Words by & for LGBTQ+ youth | #EraseHate | Want to submit for our publication? Email sara@matthewshepard.org


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MatthewsPlace.com is a program of the Matthew Shepard Foundation| Words by & for LGBTQ+ youth | #EraseHate | Want to submit? Email sara@matthewshepard.org

Matthew’s Place

MatthewsPlace.com is a program of the Matthew Shepard Foundation| Words by & for LGBTQ+ youth | #EraseHate | Want to submit for our publication? Email sara@matthewshepard.org

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