“Black Education Amidst The COVID-19 Pandemic”: Through The Eyes of James Baldwin – Fanny Situ

We are living through a very uncertain time. Everyone in this world is adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and there is no denying that. But once again, racial inequalities, specifically the lack of access to adequate education and resources, are impacting black communities at alarmingly disproportionate rates. In the billion dollar industry of education where the child is already considered the least important part, COVID-19 further magnifies the already great disparity faced by the black community across educational lines. With every passing day we continue to witness this gap widen. The gap I am referring to is the inequality between black and white educational systems in terms of adequate resources, recognition in the performance of students, and the types of racial ideologies these schools are immersed in, and this results in disproportionate educational experiences. It is the pre-existing condition of systemic racism, born from the belief of white superiority, and the legacy effects of redlining that afford the pandemic the opportunity to further widen the existing educational gap between black and white and students. But as the growing disparity more closely resembles the backpedaling of educational advances with each passing day, the fear of greater discounting of black youth, a future where racial ideologies are held as the truth, and the complete suppression of black voices intensifies. The world must first learn to acknowledge and confront these racial ideologies and notions in order to take steps towards change before it is too late.

Time and time again we witness intentional blindness and the refusal to acknowledge the way society has been purposefully structured to limit the black community, to keep black people in their “place.” In the eyes of the world, they deserve to suffer under these conditions, they only have themselves to blame, and their existence alone is an act of generosity. Thus the prevailing view is that if black students are performing terribly and are not achieving what their white counterparts are, then no one is at fault but themselves. But one can not talk about schools without talking about cities. And the reality is that the country is not run according to the will or good of its citizens, but instead for profit. Therefore children fall victim to these principles according to which the country is run, and black children fall victim to a system designed to benefit the white. The truth of the matter is that “it is not in fact a Negro problem but a white one. Not only have whites created the conditions which make being a Negro problematic but also a complex syndrome of deprivation, exploitation, fear and guilt has made the prejudiced white a problem to himself and to society” (Jones, 107). Black children are made to feel unworthy of the education they are receiving under a white system as many of these schools remain immersed in racial ideologies that hinder black education. Most often, black students are instructed by someone who is unable to identify with them. As Reverend Richard Cain has observed, “white teachers and preachers have feelings, but not as we feel for our kindred” (“Church and Community,” 309). Despite that schools are more diverse than ever, a great majority of teachers are still white. The inability to closely communicate and relate to educators poses a great barrier to black students, especially during the pandemic when the line between school and home is blurred. Black families are particularly vulnerable to the financial effects of the pandemic as unemployment leaves many unable to continue supporting their child’s education. Oftentimes, educators who have not experienced this first hand do not understand what is occurring at home and risk alienating students, aggravating an already vulnerable emotional and psychological state. When children feel that their presence is undesired, they are unmotivated and this is a dangerous state for it could become a great contributing factor to dropping out of school or pursuing harmful activities that would further harm black livelihood. But society must first recognize their hand in creating these external factors that threaten black education and success. If we hope to ever move beyond this problem of the divided line, the color line, then we must first confront, acknowledge, and address these inequalities. The external factors and the very structure of this society are hardly ever taken into consideration when it comes to the black educational system. This intentional blindness towards racial inequality and refusal to acknowledge the racial divide is what allowed COVID-19 to further magnify and threaten the disparity in education across racial lines. 

But it is important to remember that COVID-19 is not the sole cause of educational inequality. To most, the nation is battling a seemingly “new” issue, but racial inequality faced by black students is not a new matter at all. In fact, racial injustice has been baked into the education system from the very beginning. The pandemic merely gave society yet another excuse for the ever worsening conditions of black education and life. Let us revisit the conditions before the pandemic and look at a study showing how “predominantly nonwhite school districts receive $23 billion less funding than majority white school districts, despite serving the same number of students” (USA Today, “Why Racial Inequities In America’s Schools Are Rooted In Housing Policies Of The Past”). This was not an accident, it is not the natural order, it was not done by well-meaning people who had muddled in something they did not understand. It is a deliberate system hammered into place in order to prevent black people from overturning the existing power structure. Just like restricted covenants and regulated loans of the 1960s, black people are being restricted from growing beyond this “black belt” of education. The unjust denial of various services to certain areas of a community due to the racial characteristics of the neighborhood has consequently worsened already severe educational and economic gaps between black and non-black communities during the pandemic. Compared to the white, more affluent communities, many black children lack adequate internet connection and access to computer technology that is essential in this new remote learning environment. Once again we revisit the reality that we can not talk about schools without talking about cities. Residential segregation, specifically the concentration of black people in neighborhoods that have been frequently disempowered, confines black families to school districts that are most often largely underfunded and neglected by the government. Redlining has restricted these families to areas that are unlikely to receive much aid because they are not very profitable to the billion dollar industry of education. Consequently, the majority of black children attend schools that have fewer economic resources and technology to support remote instruction. So predominately white school districts that received more funding than other districts prior to the pandemic, currently receive even more funding as nonwhite school districts face significantly less online school participation due to the lack of resources and technology. The lack of adequate resources, financial aid, and supportive educational institutions, in addition to pre-existing widespread racial disparities in education, is yet another major contributing factor towards educational inequality. The legacy effects of redlining has provided the pandemic and society with the foundation to further threaten black education.

The minds of children are very different from that of adults: malleable and curious. Children are eager to look at anything and everything, so in a time where education is most important but restricted, this will create major implications for the younger black generation and the future of the black community as a whole. The purpose of the education system is to provide a person with the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to ask questions of the universe and learn to achieve his goals with those answers. But when education is taken away from young black minds, it puts them at risk of taking white racial ideologies and systemic rules to be the truth. The black person “in fact, is in large part a fiction, a convenient hierarchical invention. As an emblem of unrepressed needs and of uninhibited sexuality, he becomes a convenient image of the dark, spontaneous and anarchic dimension of human life. His social subordination thus stands as a symbol of society’s control over its own anarchic impulses” (Bigsby, 327). This racial ideology is extremely dangerous to the liberty and power of black youth because if the unprotected were to have their power taken away and lose their voice, this fictitious representation will become the reality, and this repressing hierarchy will forever remain intact with no hope of an end. While this is an undeniably alarming thought, it also appears to be a likelihood of the future with each passing day as black youth are slowly losing their power: the power of education and knowledge. I read to you the evidence: “Results of a survey conducted in April with parents in Texas, New York, California, and Washington show that one in five Black parents received little to no information from their school about remote learning resources during the pandemic. Responses from a survey conducted in March show that 25% of Black youth connected with teachers less than once per week” (Society for Research in Child Development, “Addressing Inequities in Education: Considerations for Black Children and Youth in the Era of COVID-19”). Without the resources or opportunities to form their own opinions to continue the psychological battle against racial ideologies and question racial inequities, we may ultimately witness the regression of black rights and severe suppression of black power. I have previously shared that “the brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in America never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience” (Baldwin, “If Black English Isn’t a Language Then Tell Me What Is?”). During the pandemic it has become more clear than ever that the education and success of black people is only of interest to the white system if they benefit. They fear what the black community can achieve and become if they had access to the same resources and education as the white population. The pandemic provided white society with yet another reason to excuse the deterioration of black education systems, but the truth is that the destruction is being done by the hands of the very society that claims there is equality.

During this time of uncertainty and danger, the black community and educators must join hands and be willing to confront this racist system in order to protect the children so that they can learn to defend themselves. Society must acknowledge, understand, and act on the truth that neutrality is a harmful stance. Now more than ever, teachers and educators alike, must be willing to challenge and alter the dangerous notions of what it means to be a teacher in a black community. Examples of these notions include the belief that neutrality is harmless, that it is okay to be colorblind, and that teachers should not engage in the work of anti-racism or social justice and should not touch upon controversial issues. But internal change alone is not enough to fight a centuries old system. As I have shared in the past, “The billion-dollar industry [education] is more important than the life of a child… you can’t change a school without changing the neighborhood” (James Baldwin, James Baldwin on Education). This ties back to the issue of redlining and its legacy effects. In order to have any hope of closing the large gap between the education of black and white people, the world must first recognize that the suppression of black education is not an individual battle, but the creation of centuries of racial ideologies, and therefore it is the responsibility of everyone. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first instance in which the disparity in education across racial lines expanded and it certainly won’t be the last. It is each person’s responsibility to change this society. And at the same time the black community must never forget that change does not occur overnight, and so we must never stop fighting.

Works Cited

“Addressing Inequities in Education: Considerations for Black Children and Youth in the Era of COVID-19.” Society for Research in Child Development SRCD, 9 Sept. 2020, www.srcd.org/research/addressing-inequities-education-considerations-black-children-and-youth-era-covid-19. 

Baldwin, James. “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 29 July 1979, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/98/03/29/specials/baldwin-english.html?_r=1The. 

Baldwin, James. “James Baldwin on Education.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 Feb. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=piGSgnSqO5E&ab_channel=youwhohear. 

Bigsby, C. (1979). The Divided Mind of James Baldwin. Journal of American Studies, 13(3), 325-342. doi:10.1017/S0021875800007398

“Chapter 8: Reconstruction: The Making and Unmaking of A Revolution [1865-1885]” from the text Freedom on My Mind by Deborah Gray White, Mia Bay, and Waldo E. Martin Jr.

Guastaferro, Lynette. “Why Racial Inequities in America’s Schools Are Rooted in Housing Policies of the Past.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 2 Nov. 2020, www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/11/02/how-redlining-still-hurts-black-latino-students-public-schools-column/6083342002/. 

Jones, Beau Fly. “James Baldwin: The Struggle for Identity.” The British Journal of Sociologyvol. 17, no. 2, 1966, pp. 107–121. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/589050. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021.

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