In the summer of 2001, after my freshman year at Yale, I rented a house on Lynwood Place in New Haven with several classmates. Each of us was spending that summer working on campus. One Friday night, when I happened to be alone in our house, the doorbell began to ring urgently.
I went over to the window from which I could see who was at the door. It was a white man in his mid- to late-twenties. And he was visibly drunk. He saw me through the window as I saw him.
“Open up!” he bellowed.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“You go to Yale?”
“I’m an alum,” he said. “I’m here for the reunion.” Indeed, there were cohorts of alumni in town for reunions that weekend.
“I used to live here. Now let me in.”
“Come on, let me in.”
“ … no …”
He began shouting obscenities. “Yale has really gone downhill since I was here,” he said. “Now they let in pathetic Asian nerds like you, not even going out to party on a Friday night.” Words to that effect, as best as I can recall. At least he didn’t know, I thought, that I grew up in Taiwan and New Zealand and was here as an international student.
Then he unzipped his pants and urinated on my door.
News about US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has brought back memories of this night, particularly as I watched him make “But I got into Yale” into a defence against allegations of potential crimes. Well, so did I. And in my case, I actually had no connections to the university, whereas his grandfather was an alumnus. Yale and its peers continue unabashedly to give “legacies” like him a leg up in admissions.
I know nothing about the accusations against him other than what’s in the press. But I am familiar with a certain type of Yale men (and women). They are members of a privileged class, and they know it. They are supposed to be able to do just what they want like they own the place, because, in a way, they do.
That June evening in 2001 was, in retrospect, one lesson in a long and ongoing curriculum that life has had in store for me. American society, I was beginning to realise, was built around the privilege of the traditional WASP ruling class, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, even if each individual member of that class was not necessarily W or AS or P. Mr Kavanaugh, for one, is Catholic.
This may seem obvious to some. But when I was growing up, names like Harvard and Yale and MIT were to my ears, and to my parents’ ears, synonyms only for academic excellence, not privilege. To our immigrant and aspirational minds, you went to these famous institutions if you were smart and you worked hard. Later I realised that, in the eyes of most Americans, you went to these institutions if your family was rich.
Both views were correct. I knew some incredibly intelligent and hardworking people in college as well as some remarkably privileged ones, the sons and daughters of presidents and ambassadors and CEOs. Such were – and are – the Janus-like twin faces of not only Yale but of America as well, both a meritocracy and an aristocracy.
It’s the story of America. Jay Gatsby was a striver; the Buchanans were aristocrats. Alexander Hamilton was a striver; George Washington was an aristocrat. Barack Obama was a striver; FDR and JFK and the Bushes were aristocrats. For most of American history, there was a tacit balance between the two. For most of American history, the aristocracy understood that with privilege came responsibilities. And the meritocrats accepted the role of adjuncts in the hopes that one day they might be invited into the country club.
And if the invitation eventually came, then sometimes the strivers, or their children, joined the aristocrats. Gatsby got rich. Hamilton made himself the son Washington never had. Obama won the presidency. At Yale, despite the current focus on the privilege of white men, I saw certain female and Asian and Jewish classmates guard their privilege as jealously as any WASP men, or even more so perhaps because they understood their positions were precarious.
Precarious because, as the drunkard demonstrated at my door, and as Mr Kavanaugh showed in the Senate, at any moment the “rightful” owners of America can tear off the mask of civility, even to those who may think they have joined the club. To me, as much a Yale man as my late-night visitor, even if I was Asian and a foreign national. To Amy Klobuchar, after all a US senator, whom Mr Kavanaugh sought to bully on live television when she questioned him about the allegations. They are liable to do so particularly – however unreasonably – when they feel they have been denied their due, refused entry into where they believe they have a right to go.
In the Trump era, the historical accommodation between the two faces of Janus has broken down. As the scions of privilege can now plead bone spurs and also refuse to pay taxes, so the marginalised demand demolition of the traditional power structure. In return, the privileged assert themselves in the most naked of manners. They are tearing off their masks.
You can guess where my sympathies lie in this conflict within America’s soul. Working-class or middle-class strivers who struggled their way into Yale would never come to a stranger’s house in the middle of the night, drunk, and demand admittance while screaming racial slurs. Never would they piss on the door. Strivers who had to earn their spot anywhere they went would never feel as entitled as that.
William Han is a lawyer and writer. Born in Taiwan and a citizen of New Zealand, he is a graduate of Yale College and Columbia Law School