Study Guide: A Hope In the Unseen by Ron Suskind - Online Notes

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4. Skin Deep


At MIT on the first day of the Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES) program, Cedric finds himself one of fifty-two hopeful students. He pays attention when Bill Ramsey, a black MIT graduate and retired corporate executive, is introduced as the program's administrative director. However, he is then confused and unimpressed when Leon Trilling, a white man, is introduced as the program's faculty director. On the first day of studies, Cedric is surprised at how difficult the classes are; when he discusses this on the second day with other students, they seem less troubled and the conversation switches to how Cedric sounds when he speaks. Cedric is further discouraged when he finds out how much better other MITE students had done on their SATs. He calls up his mother and assures her he is doing well, but even English class proves difficult, as their first major text is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World instead of a text that directly relates to his own experiences as an African American. He seeks help in his Physics class from the star student, Andrew Parker, but is rebuffed in a condescending manner. On a later evening, Cedric calls his childhood friend Torrence Parks, who has since converted to Islam and explains that the MITES program is another example of Africans being exploited by the white power structure. Cedric does poorly at midterms, but finds unexpected solace when he is visited by Cornelia Cunningham, a surrogate grandmother from Scripture Cathedral who died two weeks before Cedric left for MIT. He wakes, unsure if it was a dream, but feels a renewed committment.

The MITES hold a robot battle every year using teams of three students; in the past, the program made an effort to mix the ethnicities of all the teams, but this year the teams self-selected and thus segregated according to ethnic lines. The Black students and Latino students each root for their own ethnicities but grow quiet when the mostly Caucasian / part Native American student wins. The surprising display of racial antagonism dismays Bill Ramsey, as he returns to his office to meet with Cedric Jennings. Ramsey muses over how the MITES program has ended up favoring students from upper-and middle-class backgrounds instead of those from poorer backgrounds less prepared for the rigors of these classes. When Cedric arrives, Ramsey warns him about being careful in how he flirts with the girls, but does not tell the young man about how he really feels: that the deck is stacked against him and MIT is still short on black professors and students.

After the disastrous showing at midterms, Cedric decides to let his true self show, and embraces how "ghetto" he is with the MITES crowd, who are impressed by his behavior and his knowledge of hip-hop music. Slowly, he also becomes more comfortable with the classes and shows improvement. Towards the end of the program, Cedric has a meeting with Professor Leon Trilling, who informs him that he's not MIT material. Cedric is enraged on his walk back to his room, then finally gives in to the growing impulse to call Trilling a racist. His friends in the program try to console him; Jenica thinks of how Trilling encouraged her to apply to MIT, but she rebuffed him by saying she was planning on Stanford.

In August, three weeks after his return to Washington, D.C., Cedric turns down scholarship offers to attend better schools, realizing he will be more comfortable in Ballou.


The irony of this chapter is that Cedric's first encounter with the limitless opportunities available in higher education is short-circuited by the very people who are supposed to help him. Leon Trilling - who leaves Cedric unimpressed in their initial encounter - is dismissive of Cedric's ability due to a shortsightedness that may be labeled racist. The reason is made clear in the narrative tangent with Bill Ramsey: despite emphasizing minorities, there is still a systemic bias in social class which is supposed to elevate students like Cedric but instead keeps them down.

Cedric's personal development among the MIT Mites is noteworthy because he finally interacts with other gifted minority students, which provides a huge contrast against his experiences in Ballou. Aspects of his identity are seen in a different light: he is considered more masculine and street-savvy by coming from a lower-class urban background, and respected for that reason. As already seen, back in those inner city neighborhoods, however, he is considered effeminate and weak. This not only shows how such ideas of identity can be relative, but also foreshadows the reaction of students at Brown.

The most important choice made by Cedric this chapter is returning to Ballou for his Senior year. Whether or not this was a wise move is unclear: on the one hand, it seems motivated by going for the easier path of comfort. On the other hand, this choice leads to his decision to apply to Brown.

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