John McCain: a study in white privilege

Senator John McCain addresses the Brigade of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. 

Editor’s note: John McCain died Aug. 25 at the age of 81 after his battle with brain cancer.

(Joshua McKerrow)

This is not news — and it is nothing against the man, Sen. John McCain — but the New York Times obit on McCain, written by Robert D. McFadden, inadvertently serves as a template for how white privilege works.

Let’s begin with McCain’s youth.


His mom is an oil heiress (at 106, she’s outlived her son), and his father and grandfather were admirals in the Navy. The teenaged McCain went to high school at a fancy, muckety-muck private school in Alexandria, Va., where “his grades were abysmal,” according to Mr. McFadden, and he was “defiant and unruly” and “cocky, combative, easily provoked and ready to fight anyone.”

Nonetheless, young McCain is accepted into the Naval Academy. And remember, this is one of the most difficult schools in the country to be accepted to: You need to be nominated by one of your congressional representatives or the vice-president of the United States. The Academy suggests you are in the top 20 percent of your high school class, that you take four years of mathematics (“including a strong foundation in geometry, algebra, and trigonometry”) and that your high school is competitive. In 2016, just 8 percent of applicants were accepted to the school.


For comparison, let’s take Baltimore’s Frederick Douglass High School. Would the Naval Academy consider this a “competitive” high school and admit one of its students, 98.9 of whom are African-American? At Frederick Douglass the chronic absence rate in 2017 was 85 percent; 19 percent of students dropped out; 78.8 percent of 10th grade students taking the standardized PARCC test did meet expectations in English, while 89.6 did not meet expectations in Algebra II; 0 percent of students taking Advanced Placement tests passed; and only 26 percent of graduates reported plans to enroll in college after graduation.

In McCain’s case, he was still a screw-up once accepted at the Naval Academy. Mr. McFadden writes that he “resisted the discipline” and that “his grades were poor.” Further, McCAin “stood up to upperclassmen, broke the rules and piled up demerits.”

And what does Mr. McFadden make of this behavior? Two sentences later, he characterizes it as “the rugged independence of a natural leader.”

One would be hard-pressed to see that description ever applied to a black student who was failing his classes, resisting authority and getting into fights. In high school, that young man would have been booted out or caught up in the courts, labelled a “juvenile delinquent.” As a young adult, he would have been a “thug.” If the young McCain, who was picked up by the “Shore Patrol” after having been driving with a “carload of drinking buddies,” had a been a black 20-something in Baltimore, he would have landed in our notorious prison pipeline.

Though McCain graduated “894th in his class, fifth from the bottom,” he inexplicably landed a plum assignment as a fighter pilot in the Navy. His performance, Mr. McFadden writes, “was subpar, sometimes careless or even reckless.” In fact, he was involved in multiple “mishaps” — military parlance for plane crashes. He was promoted up the ranks.

None of this is surprising, given his background, nor is it intended to denigrate his service. But it pains me — anew, again, afresh — the vivid and plain discrepancies in our alleged meritocracy where a white man’s troubled youth is cast as the “rugged independence of a natural leader” and gets him a second and third and fourth chance to get his stuff together, while a black man gets no such pass. To bastardize Virginia Woolf’s famous musing about the fate of Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, “If McCain had a brother...”

Karen Houppert ( is a freelance journalist and associate director of the MA in Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University.