The headline in the New York Times a couple days ago read: 12,000 More White Children Return to N.Y.C. Schools Than Black Children.
I will admit it’s a slightly misleading headline, but it’s also a very telling one that has real implications when we look at the impact of race in this COVID-19 pandemic.
First, let me get the “misleading” part out of the way. It won’t stop anyone from whining to me that I make everything about race but whatever.
Just shy of 200,000 New York City public school students are eligible to return to school buildings as the system begins to reopen, and the data show that many more white families are choosing a return to campus for in-person learning than are Black families. Basically, 12,000 more white kids are going back to school than Black kids.
That’s all totally on the mark and correct—the NYT article isn’t telling lies here—but I do want to point out that while white kids and Black kids are the focus of many of the headlines about this finding, white kids are not the majority of students going back. Latinx students are the largest share of students returning, at 43% (and they make up 41% of the total student population).
So with that out of the way, why is this topic “racial” to me? It’s because of proportions. Black people are disproportionately affected negatively by most things in U.S. society, and white people are disproportionately rewarded. And it plays out here as well, though it’s more about attitude and sense of privilege/protection.
As New York reopens schools, white students represent 25% of the students switching from remote learning to in-school learning even though they make up only 16% of the public school population (and there’s plenty to say about that 16% number because white people are over 40% of the total NYC population, but we won’t go there right now).
Meanwhile, 18% of the students going back into the buildings are Black, and Black students make up 22% of the total school population. (Asian students, by the way, are a mere 12% of the returnees—the smallest group—and represent 18% of the total school population.)
You can argue about the difference in between Black and white students with regard to how many are coming back and their percentage of the school population not being huge all you want, but it does mean something. I mean, right off the bat, the trends are in opposite directions.
Let’s break it down.
By a factor of nine percentage points, more white families are choosing to send their kids back. The only other group whose level of return exceeds degree of population are the Latinx families, and them only by two percentage points. And the only group less eager than Black people to send their kids into school buildings during a pandemic are the Asian-Americans.
The Asian numbers don’t surprise me. Here in Maine, I noticed that when the pandemic hit, the Asian restaurants seemed to be the ones who closed down the quickest, the fastest to pivot to take-out only, and the most likely to stay take-out only even when restrictions on dining in were relaxed. That’s just my observation—I don’t know anyone who’s run any numbers on that—but it tracks with what I now know about Asian culture around disease. As I’ve learned during the pandemic, people in many Asian nations often routinely wear masks when they are sick so as not to spread their illness—I never understood until this year why I would see Asians wearing masks in stores periodically over the years, but now I do. So when the pandemic hit, Asian people were already more inclined to mask up. If you do it for the flu, of course you’re going to do it for a nastier and deadlier bug.
The reluctance of Black parents to send their kids back is also not surprising to me. Since this pandemic began, Black folks have been far more likely than white people to contract COVID-19 and to die from it. Whether because of racially influenced socioeconomic factors, healthcare disparities, heavier concentration of Black people in “essential” jobs, or whatever else—and race factors in big in all these areas—the ‘Rona is hitting Black people hard. Sorta feels a bit like when white people gave smallpox-infected blankets to Indigenous People as part of that genocidal campaign.
Black people know they are at higher risk, and so they are not eager to send their kiddos back into spaces where people are too tightly packed for too long, plus the fact that children and teens often don’t follow hygiene, distance and health rules all that well—even less well than adults, and that’s saying a lot.
We know that putting our kids back into school settings is a big risk, and if we can avoid that risk, we are more likely to do so.
On the other hand, like we’ve seen with so many other things in this country, white people overall kinda feel immune to COVID. To them, it’s someone else’s problem. They are far more lax about mask-wearing and way more likely to gather in large groups or in small spaces—or both at the same time. And overall, white people don’t seem to care much that other groups, particularly Black people, might be getting hit harder by the virus. Made sicker and killed more. We’re expendable and forgettable.
The bottom line here is that white people feel more comfortable taking the risk. The downside is that nonchalant attitude puts everyone else (and them, too) at more risk and keeps the ‘Rona from going away or even sharply declining. So, as long as white people are being reckless, a lot of us people of color, especially Black people, are trying to be extra vigilant.
So, yeah, these school return numbers are influenced by white privilege and systemic racism. And if you’re tempted to accuse me of making everything about race, the fact is that the focus on whiteness in this country does negatively impact almost every area of life for non-whites.
Even the groups most adjacent to whiteness, like Asian-American people, seem to know they need to keep themselves away from bad white habits during the pandemic. And with that, let me urge you to follow the lead of so many Asian people worldwide: Masks help reduce spread, and we should be wearing them whenever we fear we might be sick with something that we can spread. And when there’s a disease that can be asymptomatic for a week or two and is like four or five times deadlier than the flu as well as more contagious, we should really be wearing masks. All the time when we’re out.
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