This was written by Osamudia James, professor of law at the University of Miami, who explores why the U.S. educational responses to the coronavirus are primed to leave students of color further back than their White counterparts.
She teaches, researches and writes about education, race and the law, and is a 2020 Public Voices Fellow of the OpEd Project, a national initiative to increase the public impact of our nation’s top underrepresented thinkers. Follow her on Twitter: @ProfOsamudiaJ
By Osamudia James
When news of the pandemic pods arrived, I can’t say I didn’t understand. Yes, I shared the anxieties of educators and policymakers that these pods would only deepen existing inequality. I wondered how parents whose children were already advantaged would nevertheless readily pay upward of $25,000 to create these small home schooling groups. Amid my concern and astonishment, however, lay another emotion: recognition. Like me, these parents were attempting to manage education risk.
Education risk takes many forms, although like most things in the United States, race can change the nature and consequences of those risks. Nonwhites are particularly vulnerable to the risk of school failure, which includes problems such as inferior facilities, underqualified teachers, and curriculums unfit for preparing students for democratic citizenship or labor market productivity.
That the children, for example, denied an opportunity to develop basic literacy in Detroit public schools are Black is no coincidence. Race is similarly impossible to miss when considering the risk inherent to the school-to-prison pipeline or disparities in school discipline and suspension.
Less obvious, but no less pernicious a racialized education risk, is the “benign” neglect to which students of color are subject. This risk was made glaringly obvious to me several years ago when my then-6-year-old daughter was navigating an embarrassing, potentially traumatizing incident at school.
I arrived six hours after the event, unaware of what had happened because nobody had bothered to call me, and shocked to learn the problem had not yet been properly addressed. Teachers and counselors who had interacted with my child, and who either knew or should have immediately realized that something was wrong, defended their failure to contact me by suggesting that my little girl just seemed so “self-assured.”
When I later asked my daughter to name the adults at school to whom she could go when she was sad or scared, she looked up at the ceiling and squinted her eyes in that way that young children do to signal that they’re doing some serious thinking.
Despite her concerted concentration, however, she couldn’t name a soul. I never could shake the sense that a thoughtful and responsive adult response had been denied her because young Black girls are perceived as not needing thoughtful and responsive care. I eventually jumped ship by enrolling in an independent school. There, we might enjoy the perception of diminished vulnerability to racialized education risk, even if that perception was mere mirage.
Turns out that Whiter, wealthier parents are also navigating risk, although of a different nature — that of downward social mobility despite access to quality education. Under an aggressive and increasingly unregulated form of capitalism, economic insecurity has infiltrated U.S. households. Since the 1970s, incomes for the majority of Americans have stagnated or fallen, even as income at the top 1 percent has grown by over 130 percent. A near-doubling of volatility in household income between the 1970s and early 2010s has created economic instability from which fewer and fewer families can recover. The likelihood of access to health care through work has been on the decline, alongside decreasing access to defined-benefit pensions.
Education is no longer a guarantee against this sort of insecurity, and for the first time in recent history, children in the United States have only a 50 percent chance of doing economically better than their parents. White Americans, in a way all too familiar to their Black and brown counterparts, are increasingly asked to individually bear the burden of sickness, unemployment or old age without a social safety net.
And it is atop this high wire of risk that White parents are fighting it out for access to high-quality and elite education, believing it to increase a kid’s chances of upward social mobility and long-term stability if parents can just make it across.
Addressing and mediating education risks are within the state’s control. Resource availability for highly qualified teachers, engaging curriculums and suitable facilities are a function of the school-financing schemes states adopt. School segregation and racial disparities in tracking and discipline are problems that robust integration can address. Administrators and teachers can be taught how to create school environments that minimize marginalizing student experiences on account of race. Proper governmental management of covid-19 would have made it easier and safer to return to school, avoiding the education disruption to which pandemic pods are responsive.
The state, however, has abdicated a robust role in education management, leaving parents to fend for themselves. School systems have abandoned the project of integration. School-financing schemes continue to track race and class. School districts delay in adopting anti-racist curriculums. The federal government demands that schools reopen absent the resources and support necessary to do so safely. Market principles, instead of equality and justice, are adopted as the dominant version of school reform.
In New Orleans, the fight is called “school choice.” In New York, “selective school admissions.” In higher education, “merit.” But no matter the label, the underlying logic is the same: Parents must independently battle it out to ensure high-quality educational offerings for their kids. In this education “Thunderdome,” using race, wealth or social capital to win the fight is “good” parenting.
Unfortunately, “good” parenting can make for bad democracy. In this landscape of risky education, race and wealth work together to unequally distribute the negative effects of political action, or, as in the case of education, inaction. Poor or minority parents who consistently bear a disproportionate share of education risk are left to shift risk among themselves to varying degrees of success. I would know, having used my own resources to minimize risk, to the detriment of the students and families I left behind in the public school system.
And now, even wealthier White people are caught in the net of education risk the pandemic has broadened. Fearing that in-person instruction this fall is unsafe, White parents, long accustomed to monopolizing the best schools to the exclusion of their Black and brown counterparts, are mobilizing through pods to confront a round of education risk that has touched them.
It doesn’t matter that their children are least likely to be significantly impacted by the education disruptions caused by covid-19, or that this mobilization will only worsen race and class inequality in their communities.
Like all of us, they’ve internalized a democracy-corroding narrative: Parents alone bear the risk of educational failure. The state will not be arriving to help. And when parents use race and wealth to navigate their risk, it’s the best of parenting — democracy and equality be damned.