Recess | Claiming Williams speaker sheds light on dilemma of 'privileged poor'

Harvard University Professor Anthony Jack maintained a rapt audience during his Claiming Williams keynote address, "The Privileged Poor," on Thursday in Chapin Hall at Williams College.

WILLIAMSTOWN — Anthony Abraham Jack is an Amherst College alum, but for once, Williams didn't hold that against a person.

Instead, the hundreds of students, faculty and community members that came in from the cold on Thursday night and gathered up to the rafters in Chapin Hall, gave him a standing ovation after he presented "The Privileged Poor," a keynote address to kick off the college's 11th annual Claiming Williams Day.

The title of his talk is also his hashtag and the name of his highly praised, award-winning 2019 book, "The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students."

Jack, aka Professor Anthony Jack, aka Tony Jack, is an author, sociologist and assistant professor of education at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He's also a first-generation, Miami-born black man now living and working in Ivy League territory. In a New York Times column, he writes about being unable to afford trips home during semester breaks and finding himself stranded on a closed campus, working extra shifts as a gym monitor while sustaining himself on vending machine Cheetos, Yoo-hoos, and prepackaged sandwiches from CVS.

His book is built not only on self-reflection but on the interviews of more than 100 lower-income black, Latinx, and white undergraduates, which he then describes through two categories. The "privileged poor" are students from low-income, diverse backgrounds who have the advantage of attending elite prep or boarding schools before attending college, and the "doubly disadvantaged" students who arrive from underprivileged backgrounds without any prior preparatory experience of navigating an elite or rigorous educational setting.

Basically he's reminding folks that not all poor people live the same experience. The personal experiences and anecdotes he shared about his interviewees during his keynote reminded listeners that he's far from being the only one to live like this.

When describing his own internal monologue after walking onto his first college campus, Jack said aloud, "Where are all the poor, black people at?" and a Williams student in the audience instantly raised their hand. During his talk, he described interviewing one student who set up a week's worth of dates before school breaks in hopes that lunch or dinner would be included so she wouldn't starve. Other students, he found in his research, did not have a clear understanding of what "fellowship" and "office hours" meant in a higher ed setting.

"Making your needs known is a skill set," he said.

But students don't know how to do that if they're not taught the right vocabulary.

Clinton Williams, the college's director of special academic programs, said the purpose of Claiming Williams Day is to get campus community members to "acknowledge and understand that not all students, staff and faculty can equally claim Williams," that there are still attainment gaps between students and opportunities, potential and success.

Jack said that as campuses become more diversified, colleges must figure out how to better connect to once overlooked, underrepresented communities.

"Do we know how to support those who grew up on a farm and inner cities? Are we prepared to help a student though a bad harvest as well as the loss to a student of a family member through gun violence? We cannot run from these connections we must learn from them," he said.

Jenn Smith can be reached at, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.