NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — At first glance, Joshua Packwood is the embodiment of white privilege: He’s college educated, married, a father of two and he runs a successful hedge fund in Manhattan.
But his life, which began in Kansas City, Missouri, hasn’t always been so good.
Meet the white valedictorian of a historically black college
Before Packwood was born, his father was in a motorcycle accident that left him unable to walk or talk. His mother had to care for her ailing husband and two sons alone. Eventually, Packwood’s father went into an assisted living facility and his mother began a relationship with a man who became physically abusive. At the same time, she was struggling to find steady work and pay rent.
Packwood’s clashes with his stepfather forced him to make the painful choice to leave home. He was just 11 years old.
He bounced from one home to another, briefly staying with friends and family, including a stint in a trailer park with an Inuit woman who had multiple sclerosis and an upper middle class white family where both parents were successful lawyers.
Then he began to rebel. He was expelled from two different schools and had a few minor brushes with the law.
When he was 13, Packwood had just stolen a bike when he ran into Timothy Jones, a middle school classmate who considered Packwood “a troublemaking punk.” Slowly, Jones, who is black, and Packwood got to know each other better.
One day, Packwood was coming out of detention and missed his bus. He needed a place to stay so he asked Jones if he could spend the night at his house. Jones “very reluctantly” agreed, Packwood recalls.
Each night that week, Packwood asked if he could stay another night until finally Jones’ parents decided to take him in. They bought him clothes and a bed to sleep on. “They treated me just like Tim,” Packwood said, “As if I had been with them since birth.”
The Joneses lived in Grandview, a lower-middle class suburb outside of Kansas City. Eartha “Mama” Jones was a stay-at-home mom, who occasionally worked as a part-time salesperson at a mall. Barry Jones, Sr., was a warehouse manager at Grainger, the industrial supply company.
“They got me focused, playing sports, focusing on my grades,” Packwood said. “Having that structure, having that family there…it had a huge impact on me.”
In addition to sports and school, the boys sang in a choir, played video games and made up their own rap lyrics. The Jones family “treated me just like one of their kids — punishment, love and all,” Packwood said.
The results were transformative. “I went from being expelled the previous year, to being the top student at the school and getting all these accolades,” Packwood said.
He lived with the Jones family for about a year, before moving in with his grandmother. But Packwood still spent almost every day at the Joneses and, of course, with Tim.
By then, Packwood was about to start his freshman year at a predominantly black high school, which he described as “very, very poor.” (Packwood says he was at “the lower tier of that economic breakdown.”) The majority of the students — including Packwood — received free breakfast and lunch. Academically, he excelled and was a star athlete, playing varsity football, wrestling, track, and cross country.
Packwood’s experiences led him to want to major in African-American studies in college. So a guidance counselor suggested he consider Morehouse College, one of the most iconic historically black colleges in the United States.
He was accepted to Columbia, Stanford and Morehouse.
Some of his friends were concerned that opting for Morehouse over Columbia (where he had received a full financial aid package) would be a mistake, Packwood said. “People were concerned that I would be sacrificing a great education and opportunities to gain a unique experience that was not guaranteed to be uniquely good,” he said.
But unlike Columbia and Stanford, Morehouse recruited him aggressively, he said. Packwood recalls a phone call where a Morehouse dean tried to encourage him to accept their offer so he wouldn’t “be the only brother on the yard at Stanford.”
Confused, Packwood pointed the dean to the section on his application that noted that his race is white. It made no difference. The school continued to woo Packwood, in part, with an academic scholarship because of his high grades in high school.
He needed the aid, but Packwood was conflicted. “There was a part of me that was thinking, “Am I taking the scholarship away from another student? Am I getting this purely because I’m going to be the token white guy on campus?”
Ultimately, Packwood accepted Morehouse’s offer. “There is literally only one place like Morehouse on the entire planet, which is predominantly black, all male, so for me to get that experience and have that perspective was really the key differentiator,” he said.
Packwood’s experience at Morehouse included exposure to a wide diversity of blackness and black cultures, something that, despite having grown up “very much immersed and involved in part of the black community,” Packwood said he had never seen. “We had goths we had borders, we had guys who loved heavy metal. You had Republicans, you had sort of everything, you had rich, you had poor, you had guys from deep in the South, from the middle of nowhere, from Mississippi, and then you had guys from L.A., or New York, or wherever it was,” he said.
Many of his classmates were also wealthier, better dressed and more articulate than he was, Packwood said. It made him realize how class could sometimes be more of a unifying factor than race and how poor blacks and poor whites might have more in common with each other than, say, poor whites and rich whites.
As the future of affirmative action is being considered, Packwood — who was both an ethnic and economic minority at his school — thinks both race and class should be part of the equation. “If a sensible policy is found that combines those two, I think we will make a lot of progress in helping them close all the gaps that we see.”
Packwood, who eventually majored in economics, excelled at Morehouse. And in 2008, he became the school’s first white valedictorian.
“Economically now, I’m at the top, and so from one perspective I recognize that I’m very fortunate, and a lot of that is white privilege,” said Packwood.