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Opinion | The Real Roots of the Debate Over Schools During Covid

How we got here is a story about parents engaging with schools as consumers who want to extract the most school resources for their children. Mothers are the ones societally tasked with doing that extraction. A good mom gets the best learning plan, best teacher, best school, best activities and all-around “best” school experience for her kid. And a mom with the privilege of race and class gets to define the terms of what counts as best. That is a historical process that ramped up after Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. In her cultural history “Racial Taxation: Schools, Segregation, and Taxpayer Citizenship, 1869-1973,” Camille Walsh calls this the encroachment of “taxpayer citizenship.” I think of taxpayer citizenship as a case of consumer citizenship localized to public goods, like public education. It is a quasi-legal identity that construes rights as those conditioned on one’s ability to pay taxes. That identity has always been about exclusion.

Walsh says that taxpaying became conflated with deservingness when white Americans felt that their citizenship was compromised by the inclusion of racial minorities in the social contract. At the same time, Black citizens often framed their right to attend quality public schools in terms of their own taxpayer citizenship. The conflict was set up as a war of who is included in the grand American “We the people” and on what terms. Nowhere is this more evident than in the matter of public education. School integration became ground zero for white resistance to multiracial democracy, a resistance that spawned all kinds of movements: neighborhood schools, charter schools, private academies, school tracking and home-schooling.

Jennifer Berkshire’s “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door” is a good overview of the connection between today’s pre-Covid school debates and that historical resistance. Berkshire has also been really smart on how Covid school-opening talk is not organic. “Parents’ rights” has long been used by the G.O.P. to prioritize wealthy white parents’ desires at the expense of everyone else. She argues that debates on pandemic school closings, teaching race in schools, and other contentious topics are “not just [about] what schools teach and how they’re run but whose voice really matters in those decisions.”

All of this shows that the citizen-consumer model does not happen independently of other big social processes. It is part of how those social processes get enacted and gain power. And, ultimately, citizen consumerism is a public problem for civic well-being. We talk a lot about whether or not a multiethnic society can be governed. It is just as important to think about whether a nation of consumer experts is governable. In the coming weeks, I will be talking with some people I would like to hear from about that question.

I came across a couple of interesting reads this week. A timeline of the Biden administration’s Covid response by Justin Feldman is a good primer. I do not know about you, but the news is overwhelming on this topic. This series helps me keep informed without pushing me into opining purgatory. Feldman points out something critical about who we are talking about when we now talk about “the unvaccinated.” There are the willfully resistant, operating from a place of political identity and fear. Then there are the children, elderly, poor and isolated. From Feldman:

Who remained unvaccinated by late 2021? While the media often highlights the notable partisan divide in vaccination rates, it’s also notable that half of unvaccinated adults didn’t vote for Trump — many did not vote at all. The unvaccinated are largely low-income, uninsured, pregnant, incarcerated and children (including those under 5, for whom vaccination has not been authorized). While vaccination rates are high for people ages 65 and up, those in their late 70s and older have lower vaccination rates than younger seniors, suggesting a lack of autonomy (i.e., needing to rely on others to access health care) may play a role. And while racial gaps in vaccination rates have narrowed considerably, huge inequalities in Covid death rates remain. By my own calculations, age-adjusted Covid mortality rates in the U.S. between Aug. 1, 2021 and Dec. 4, 2021 were 30 percent higher for Black and Latino people, 100 percent higher for American Indians/Alaska Natives, and 340 percent higher for Pacific Islanders compared to non-Hispanic whites.

Those are interlocking problems that cannot be addressed with the same policies.

At The New Republic, Gabriel N. Rosenberg and Jan Dutkiewicz do a deep dive on problems with the Department of Agriculture. They outline a series of institutional failures that echo those found across a lot of the institutions we trust to help make our “informed decisions” mean something. Frankly, it is scary.

Derek Major, writing for Black Enterprise, points to polling data on racial and sexual minorities’ investment in cryptocurrency. A lot of readers have sent me articles about how crypto is the new social justice movement. Most of those readers want me to debunk that narrative. I am not there just yet. But I am generally skeptical of any new tool that promises to solve centuries of systematic marginalization through loosely regulated consumer tools.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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