When Justin Hudson, 18, stood up in his purple robes to address his classmates in the auditorium of Hunter College, those numbers were on his mind. He opened his remarks by praising the school and explaining how appreciative he was to have made it to that moment.
Then he shocked his audience. “More than anything else, I feel guilty,” Mr. Hudson, who is black and Hispanic, told his 183 fellow graduates. “I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do you.”
They had been labeled “gifted,” he told them, based on a test they passed “due to luck and circumstance.” Beneficiaries of advantages, they were disproportionately from middle-class Asian and white neighborhoods known for good schools and the prevalence of tutoring.
“If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city,” he said, “then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights. And I refuse to accept that.”
The entire faculty gave him a standing ovation, as did about half the students. The principal, Eileen Coppola, who had quietly submitted her formal resignation in mid-June but had not yet informed the faculty, praised him, saying, “That was a very good and a very brave speech to make,” Mr. Hudson recalled. But Jennifer J. Raab, Hunter College’s president and herself a Hunter High alumna, looked uncomfortable on the stage and did not join in the ovation, faculty members and students said.