The Real Roots of the Debate Over Schools During Covid

Last week’s newsletter generated a lot of feedback via email and social media. I will respond to some of the interesting bits.

One reader responded with as good a summary of my argument as I could have written: “We all feel like we have to be experts in everything so we don’t get scammed,” writes Jenny. “We’re skeptical of all info because we don’t want to be duped. Paranoia has set in.” The word “paranoid” is a good word, though complicated by the fact that, as the saying goes, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Still, the thing about being scammed once, no matter how minor, is that it conditions you to look for the scam where there might not be one.

There is a lot to be said about how profitable it is to manipulate people’s fears, especially when it comes to scams like claiming Donald Trump really won the election, or that the government is hiding a secret Covid cure from you. But so many of our institutional failures have made us so ready to believe that there is some hidden information that only we can find.

I had a run-in with this type of thinking just this week. I had been following a holistic health counselor on social media with whom I have worked in the past. She encourages food diaries and mindful eating, that kind of thing. Her classes are fairly innocuous. They introduce you to the joys of bulgur wheat and give you new recipes. I have liked that she does not focus on weight loss or diet culture. And her advice was aligned with things that medical doctors say. Eat real food, don’t eat too much of it and stop eating in the middle of the night. It is pretty apolitical expertise.

But last week, that apolitical counselor made a hard-right turn with a post about Covid cures. She linked to the dubious “Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance” (FLCCC) to encourage her customers to pursue their “Covid prevention protocols.” I had not heard of the FLCCC. I am a little proud of that. It suggests to me that I do not know people who dabble in nonsense. Anyway, one sentence in her social media post jumped out at me immediately: “This is the truth you won’t hear from partisan media.” The hint of information asymmetry — where some shadowy figure is hiding a critical piece of information — is almost always a red flag. In this case, the appeal is a marketing ploy to tap into the consumer-citizen’s responsibility to find the hidden truth. I unfollowed her.

Jon, another reader, said that Lizabeth Cohen’s “citizen consumer” concept is helping him “to better understand the Open the Schools crowd.” Jon’s connection is a great example of how a theory of institutional failure runs right through our complicated national history. He is referencing the loosely organized but powerful interests that dominate discussions about school responses to Covid-19 and its variants. There is a throughline from Trump, MAGA and the Jan. 6 insurrection to school-board protests and marches at mall food courts to Covid denialism. That line is further complicated by the big American fault lines: race, racism, class, gender and sexism.

For the record, there is no good or right answer to the question of whether we should close schools. Anyone who tells you that there is, is dabbling in precisely the kind of scam artistry I am talking about. There is only a set of trade-offs that vary state by state and district by district and school by school. Disabled children need resources like social workers and teacher aides that are tied to school attendance. Able-bodied children with few risk factors get better access to school resources if the school is well-resourced to begin with, which is a big “if” for millions of students, especially those in rural areas. Minority kids may benefit from in-person instruction, but may also benefit from remote learning that mitigates their exposure to racism and low expectations.

Poor kids are likely to be stuck between under-resourced households, families with high exposure levels and under-resourced schools with kids and staff members from communities with high exposure levels. And even setting all that aside, if teachers are out because they catch the virus, the schools are going to shut down, whether we do so formally or not. Despite all of these complications, our discourse is reduced to, “Schools must open because remote learning is negatively impacting students’ mental health.” As I said last week, anything is true if you get the right level of abstraction. School closings may very well have a negative effect on mental health. But that does not change the fact that millions of kids and their families and their teachers have to live with the complicated reality of trade-offs.

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:

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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