By: Sophie Hurewitz
Twenty-four percent of students in North Carolina identify as Black. Thirty-two percent of students who identify as Hispanic and forty percent of students who identify as Black have parents who lack secure employment. These are the statistics that grounded the work of the first session of the Third Annual Color of Education Summit, featuring a discussion of racial wealth and health disparities between Dr. Sandy Darity and Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards, moderated by Danita Mason-Hogans.
Dr. Bentley-Edwards, Associate Professor in Medicine and Associate Director of Research at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, opened the conversation by declaring that one should be “disheartened” but “not surprised” by the disparities in both COVID-19 and state-sanctioned violence. “These systemic issues in [the] health and social outcomes that we are seeing are also issues in educational equity,” Dr. Bentley-Edwards explained.
The U.S. has now reported more than eight million cases of coronavirus with close to two hundred and twenty thousand coronavirus-related deaths. North Carolina has seen more than a quarter of a million of these cases, with almost four thousand deaths. Recent reports highlight that ninety four percent of coronavirus-related deaths have occurred in patients with comorbid conditions such as diabetes, obesity, asthma, heart disease, and pulmonary disease. Importantly, Dr. Bentley-Edwards described how all of these conditions disproportionately impact African-American, Latinx, and Native American populations in both prevalence and mortality.
The coronavirus “myths,” “misconceptions,” and “victim blaming” ideology that have become an unfortunate part of public discourse are similarly present in education policy, manifesting in disproportionate disciplinary practices and special education designations for Black and Latinx children. These children are most frequently diagnosed with emotional disturbances, conduct issues, ADHD, and other behavioral and emotional disorders. Dr. Bentley-Edwards highlighted common school-based disciplinary practices that reflect the assumption that Black students “just misbehave more than other children”; in fact there is no evidence to support such a claim.
Essential workers or, as Dr. Bentley-Edwards stated, people who have been determined to be “dispensable workers,” are largely Black, Latinx, or part of immigrant or refugee communities. Many working parents are struggling to support their children with logging into remote classes, staying focused during long video calls, and completing and submitting their schoolwork, assuming these families have reliable internet access and the necessary technology at their disposal. Families are expected to choose between their child’s education, child care, keeping family members safe, and maintaining employment.
Generational wealth translates directly into matters of educational equity, especially in this time of virtual learning. Dr. Sandy Darity, Samuel DuBois Cook Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, explained how, as a consequence of virtual learning, there has been “exclusion from educational access” for children from families who may not have the financial means to support online learning and all of its prerequisites. A common misconception is that one can increase their wealth by increasing their educational achievement. Dr. Darity stressed how this is not at all the case due to the “policy generated differences in the capacity of Black and White households to transfer resources to younger generations.”
Furthermore, about one in every four educators qualify as at risk for a serious coronavirus infection due to pre-existing conditions. Dr. Bentley-Edwards encouraged the audience to think deeply about the many systemic issues reflected in the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, educational inequities, and other social inequities such as the accumulation of wealth. “We have to think about not just being honest about the situation that we’re in,” she advised, “but we have to be honest about where we were and where we’re going.”
“The magnitude of this differential in wealth between Black and White households is absolutely staggering,” noted Dr. Darity, who also emphasized the difference between wealth and income. Wealth is a much more useful indicator of the status of a population with regard to economic security and well-being, he explained, while income is associated primarily with an individual’s annual earnings. Wealth predicts how a family can respond to emergencies such as a global pandemic, a loss of a job, or a sudden death. Wealth is also an indicator of the educational quality available to a child, since higher quality educational options are generally associated with more upscale neighborhoods and access to private tutors and summer enrichment opportunities.
Dr. Darity specifically noted that the implications of these vast wealth disparities are “particularly disturbing” during the coronavirus pandemic; they are directly related to the development of the comorbid health conditions discussed by Dr. Bentley-Edwards and the risk of unemployment or coronavirus infection through employment. Black Americans are disproportionately placed in lower-wage employment opportunities, accompanied by higher risks of coronavirus exposure. “It is important to make a distinction between your job being designated as essential versus you being designated as essential,” stated Dr. Darity.
Wealth does drive educational attainment. However, Dr. Darity described how such a connection is beholden to the past and present role of racism in internal school segregation and stratification, racialized achievement tracking, and special education classifications. For example, out of the twenty-four percent of North Carolina students who are Black, Dr. Darity cited that only about nine percent have been identified as academically gifted or talented. The forty-seven percent of North Carolina students who are White constitute about seventy percent of the state’s academically gifted and talented students. Dr. Darity acknowledged the benefits of providing a “gifted and talented education” to all students in North Carolina schools, and Dr. Bentley-Edwards agreed that children should not have to be fiscally fortunate or White to gain access to high quality educational opportunities.
During this time of COVID-19, it is important to remember that health and educational disparities are not novel nor unique to this year. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the prevalence of inequities in health and educational access based on race in our country, but Dr. Darity reflected that this kind of reawakening of consciousness is both “gratifying and disturbing.” “Let me seize [this] moment,” pledged Dr. Bentley-Edwards, referring to the recent pandemic spotlight on racism, discrimination, and injustice.
It is my fervent hope that the programming from this year’s Color of Education Summit helps us all to seize the moment. Let us seize the moment in order to make North Carolina, and the rest of our country, a more equitable place for children to learn and for families to grow.
Sophie Hurewitz is a junior at Duke University majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Global Health and a certificate in Child Policy Research. She plans to become a pediatrician to combine her interests in health and education policy with clinical medicine and child and adolescent development.