Earnest Money: The Politics, Power, and Promise of Black College Completion

Curator's Note

Like the heavy incessant hook to a summer hit, the story of FX Atlanta’s Earnest Marks is sampled from a familiar song: Earn’s struggles as a provider because he dropped out of college. The bass line upon which the story develops is the divergent path of Earn, who does not survive Princeton, from Earn the “fine ivy league husband” of Season 1’s Juneteenth episode. When Earn closes the door to his storage shed, ending the first verse, one wonders did it have to be this way?

Earn is not alone. According to the Education Trust, in 2020, over six years of college, a Black or LatinX student is 35% less likely to complete their 4-year degree than a white peer. That same report pointed to an even larger gap in the returns from that education. Black graduates have a 12-year default rate on their education loans of 28%, more than double that of their LatinX peers, and close to 5 times the rate of white students.

The little talked-about reason kids like Earn don’t survive predominantly white institutions (PWIs) of learning is the lack of community. When Earn finally opens up in therapy about what happened, he lays bare the challenge: whereas being black and poor is a collective experience – something often shared with an entire community  – facing whiteness and privilege is something Earn was forced to do alone.

In the attached clip from Season 4 Episode 2: The Homeliest Little Horse, Earn and his black male therapist discuss the circumstances around his Princeton expulsion – the story of a failed friendship, a culture miscue, and a lost chance at completing a degree. At Dr. Tillman’s questions, Earn admits to feeling hurt by the incident “because we were supposed to be friends.”

Earn lacked an authentic community at Princeton. Not just the presence of people who look like him, but rather the thriving presence of people who are like him, talk like him, and have a culture that he could comfortably weave into and out of as he himself navigated becoming who he was. It’s people who are alike yet different enough to bring him new connections beyond the limits and redlines that defined his origins that he needed but could not find.

Having built and cultivated this kind of community for students in underrepresented groups since 1992, the Posse Foundation gets this. Posse sends diverse groups of mostly students of color to colleges in bunches– with a pre-college focus on community building amongst each cohort, through service mentoring, and connection opportunities even after graduation. In 2012, an impact report from Posse found that it had 90% college completion rates, and 89% of Posse alumni were satisfied or highly satisfied with their college experience. You won’t find those numbers without a community.
Earn needed someone who understood the significance and difficulty of the suit and the job interview. Instead, he found Sasha, inherited a need for therapy as deep as his childhood abuse, and left Princeton to return to Atlanta and work for his cousin.

Earn had been trying to survive as a poor black kid from Atlanta, at a school where more students were coming from households earning over $600k, than from households earning $60k. Even the Black kids he would meet at Princeton would be worlds away from the community he called home. If they existed, black and poor at Princeton, could they even afford to have his back? Is it a wonder, then, that in his moment of need, he felt alone? Earn is sent home. Kicking off both the eventual insecurity as a provider for Lottie, and setting forward the events of Atlanta, but finding community.

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