This essay reflects on Philando Castile and the work he did to support the children who passed through his school cafeteria. By regularly paying off their school lunch debt, Mr. Castile voluntarily assumed a vital caretaking role that the state refused to accept: namely, supporting food-insecure children and education through debt-free lunch. He kept children safe in this regard, even up to the moment that the state violently stole his life on July 6, 2016. Even as his death is a marker of the continuing, racialized excesses of American policing, Mr. Castile’s life in service to hungry schoolchildren reveals the sometime perversity of the public-private American social provision policy that continues to impose the burdens of financial insecurity on individuals least able to bear them.
More than a response to a temporary health crisis, the pandemic pods that emerged in the wake of COVID-19’s onset are an illustration of larger problems in American education. Grounded in a broader social architecture of risk in education and contextualized against neoliberal policies inside and outside of education, the rise of pandemic pods was both predictable and inevitable. Needed are interventions that both undercut the inherent inequality of pandemic pods in the short term and reorient the political economy of education such that education stability and equality can be secured in the long term.
From disparities in healthcare quality and coverage to housing and employment insecurity, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted existing inequalities in American society. But critically, the pandemic has also exacerbated these inequalities, particularly those that exist within the family. As work and school activities have shifted from schools and other public sites to the home, and employment has become more precarious, more and more Americans have found themselves struggling to reconcile the demands of the workplace with household responsibilities and their new roles shepherding children through the travails of remote education.
Much has been made of the pandemic’s particular effects on professional women, who have disproportionately assumed the twin burdens of work and caregiving during these extraordinary times. These burdens, coupled with the collapse of service industries in which women are disproportionately employed, have prompted women to leave the workforce in record numbers. The consequences of this exodus of women from the workforce cannot be understated. Indeed, some argue that this “she-cession” will erase decades of hard-won progress for working women, while also exacerbating race and class inequalities.
But speaking of these dynamics solely in the register of economic disruption, gender inequality, and work-family conflict overlooks a crucial player in this landscape: the state. As this Essay argues, not only has the pandemic revealed endemic inequality, it has also highlighted the state’s thin support for caregiving and family responsibilities, as well as the underlying presumption that the family will serve as a means of privatizing care and dependency. It is only in recentering the state, and being clear-eyed about its conscription of the family (and those within it) in the discharge of public functions, that we can be clear-eyed about the inequalities that are produced—and exacerbated—by the privatization of care.
The killing of George Floyd prompted a racial reckoning that quickly extended beyond the issue of police violence, prompting people of all backgrounds to confront the depth and breadth of racial inequality in American society. Education is central to either undermining or sustaining racial hierarchy. For much of American history, Blacks were either denied education or provided a segregated education inferior to that available to whites. The demise of de jure segregation fueled hopes that the expansion of educational opportunity would diminish racial inequalities.
Yet, while the promise of education remains undeniable, some aspects of schooling predictably exacerbate racial disparities. This Essay highlights a paradox at the intersection of education and racial justice: selective schools’ laudable embrace of the principle of academic achievement now constitutes an impediment to educational opportunity for Black Americans in both secondary and higher education alike. When schools evaluate applicants on the basis of their prior academic achievement, the educational system becomes stratified on the basis of student achievement. Achievement segregation disadvantages Black Americans. When racial segregation results from achievement segregation, it may be especially difficult to dislodge, given the importance attached to the idea of academic achievement as a desirable basis for choosing among applicants. Nonetheless, this Essay unsettles the justifications that sustain achievement segregation. Doing so is essential to creating educational settings that are more racially equitable.