By Leah John
Although my suburban high school crushed it in the science bowl, sports were never our strong suit. Our high school football games were so abysmal that I never once stayed through the whole match. After all, it’s hard to stay for the second half when the score indicates that the game is already long over. Needless to say, our miserable record made school spirit extremely rare and school rivals useless. After all, a rivalry isn’t very enjoyable when the outcome is pretty much guaranteed before the game even starts.
My lack of a true rivalry made me excited to finally partake in one in college. UCLA and USC are historic, and as a Bruin, I knew the content for USC insults was ripe for picking. College admissions scandals! Daddy’s money business kids! Frat boys so fratty it feels like they are doing a satirical impression of a frat boy! The insults practically write themselves.
Yet despite the gold mine of available material, one of the most prevalent insults thrown around by UCLA students is about USC’s surrounding neighborhood, University Park in South Los Angeles. UCLA may be a public university, but at least it’s not located in a “shitty” area, or so the insults go. What seems like a meaningless dig, however, says less about USC as a college and more about the neighborhood natives who play zero part in the rivalry. By coming for the area instead of the students, UCLA is contributing to a classist narrative that paints systemic poverty and violence as the fault of those born into it, instead of a symptom of a broken system.
USC is located in an artificial university bubble in the center of South Central Los Angeles. This region is primarily made up of working-class people of color, with around 22% of the population being black and 76% being Hispanic. More than 29% of the population in the region lives below the poverty line, a statistic that is double the state average. This historically under-resourced region is juxtaposed with one of the most expensive private institutions in the country. The idea that the region is too unsafe for its posh college community encourages the idea that the people of the neighborhood are intrinsically violent and uneducated, an assumption that is categorically false. Crime rates in the area have decreased significantly over recent years. Even if they weren’t decreasing, neighborhood instability isn’t an excuse to simply evict a neighborhood. Instead, it is evidence that the school should be doing what it can to fund and provide resources to nurture the neighborhood. If anything, the cash USC makes as a private institution should be a tool to better the lives in the community they forcibly imposed themselves on, instead of the means to gentrify locals out of their homes. By making fun of the area, we as UCLA students are not coming for our rivals, but instead a community of mostly people of color who are being displaced by the existence of USC rather than empowered.
These insults are not just superficially problematic statements. They perpetuate the idea that the urban neighborhoods around private colleges need to be “fixed” and gentrified in order to accommodate the wealthy student body infiltrating the area. This rapid gentrification is reflected in the increase in housing prices surrounding USC. In the past 16 years, home values in South Los Angeles have increased 707%. Just 5 years ago, a new state-of-the-art USC Village was constructed, permanently transforming the makeup of the neighborhood. As of 2020 the region surrounding USC has become one of the most gentrified neighborhoods in America.
USC is not the only college in the country contributing to the destruction of working-class communities of color. For example, over the past 16 years, the home values around the University of Pennsylvania have skyrocketed by 200%. However, the increase in home value and abundance of new construction projects doesn’t actually contribute to the well-being of the community as a whole. Private colleges are notorious for not paying their fair share of taxes. Thus, the monetary compensation they gain from their wealthy students does little to improve the lives and amount of resources available to those living in the area. The Bayh Dole Act of 1980, lobbied by a multitude of the country’s largest higher education institutions, allows for schools to use their academic research for profit while still operating under nonprofit tax laws. In essence, colleges are allowed to function as for-profit organizations while reaping the benefits of non-profit organizations. This loophole has allowed institutions such as Yale, USC, Harvard, and more to continue to rake in large endowments. In the past 6 years for example Yale’s tax-exempt properties have increased in value by 690 million dollars. Due to this, New Haven has been starved of the benefits that could have been reaped from the taxation of nearly 700 million dollars. UCLA’s public university status allows for LA residents to use some of its facilities. At USC and other private institutions, however, the benefits reaped by low taxes are reserved exclusively for those that pay high tuition. Thus, the way private colleges function grossly exacerbates the wealth inequality and lack of social mobility in the towns they inhabit.
The USC student body is not innocent either. Head to the annual UCLA vs. USC football game and you are sure to find signs made by USC students reading “UCLA parents were my housemaids!” These banners are more than overused (and wordy) insults— they are built on the ideology that blue-collar work is something to be ashamed of and that growing up rich is something to be proud of. Another Trojan favorite comes in the form of roasting UCLA for being a public school as if paying a semi-reasonable, or at least more reasonable than USC, tuition is inherently reprehensible. Classist rhetoric is simply offensive, unfunny, and unnecessary no matter which side is utilizing it. It is unreasonable to weaponize a factor about someone’s life or community that they do not have complete control of in order to prove oneself superior.
Villainizing poverty at the expense of those not even involved in a meaningless college rivalry is deplorable. UCLA and USC students may have differences, but we are all studying at some of the best institutions in the world, both of which happen to be located in the same amazing city. Instead of disparaging the community that allowed us to receive our education within it, let’s use those big brains we brag about to think of some more innovative ways to come for each other. I’m still as excited as ever to be part of a classic rivalry, but I now know it has the potential to be even more enjoyable, if only we put in the work to create slander that’s a little more creative.