Has COVID-19 Created a New Jim Crow?

by Anne Segrest McCulloch, Social Impact CEO

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I’m from the Deep South and old enough to have witnessed firsthand the creation of segregation academies. Those were the private schools founded in my native region by white parents in the mid-20th century to avoid having their children attend integrated public schools. Often they were created when the public schools were physically closed as a response to desegregation.

For the last many years, my family and I have lived in Virginia, the state once largely responsible in the 1950s for spawning the so-called “massive resistance” movement which quickly led to an emergence of these whites-only institutions and other measures sanctioned by states to disenfranchise Black Americans.

The Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown versus Board of Education ruling, and subsequent court decisions over the next two decades, declared that separate schools for Black children, created by state law, were inherently unequal.

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As someone who has fought for equal rights and civil liberties my entire career, I’m struck today by an odd echo of those times. The pandemic has forced millions of parents of school-age children to educate their kids at home. It’s a challenge, including for those with the means to carry out the task effectively. I’m referring to those mothers and fathers who are working from home, allowing them, however difficult, to run this new, ad hoc schooling. They are fortunate to have homes large enough to accommodate make-shift “classrooms” in a safe and healthy environment, with access to broadband, maybe access to supplemental child care or tutoring support, and adequate incomes for the essentials.

With no other options — through necessity, not bigotry — these parents may be erecting new, segregation academies in their homes.

But what about the other families, disproportionately minority, and often with (at least) two incomes and still of very modest means — whose breadwinners must leave the home to earn a living? That is if they’re fortunate enough in the current crisis to have household incomes enough to afford a decent place to call home for themselves and their children. They are typically renters, not owners. And even before the pandemic, millions already were paying a higher percentage of their monthly income toward rent than they could afford.

Meanwhile, their children are falling behind. They face multiple shortfalls in technology, tutoring and supervision, supplies, and, often, in a secure, quiet, and consistent place in which to learn. As the pandemic wears on, the educational gap between the haves and have nots is widening. Too many kids are cut off from the system meant for everyone and cut out from their right to a good education. The effects are felt most acutely by the at-risk children whose futures are determined largely by their educational opportunities. The plain fact is, now that schooling is often home-based, the quality of education of our nation’s children is determined by the quality of their housing.

Brown v Board of Education struck down 1896’s Plessy v Ferguson, which in 1896 confirmed the legal doctrine of “Separate But Equal” allowing state and local governments to sanction separate schools and other facilities for Black Americans that were not even close to equal if they existed at all.

My question: Is the pandemic creating yet another American generation divided into what might be called a new, unintentional doctrine of “Separated and Unequal”? If so, I believe that socially-minded investors and policymakers can head off this disastrous split through a laser focus on decent, affordable, and safe rental housing, equipped with necessary facilities and services to help educate our most vulnerable young people.

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Businesses, civic groups, philanthropies, and individuals can work with local school systems to help. How? Put simply, they can ask themselves: what advantages do their own children have in getting ahead? We are talking about benefits taken for granted by more privileged families, such as access to reliable internet, a quiet place to study, books and materials, tutoring and mentoring support, transportation to libraries and other resources, and access to healthy meals. For low and moderate-income children, these are tangible, practical things that can mean the difference between losing a year or more of schooling and staying on course. Many live in rental apartment communities where their parents are working in service jobs outside the home. They don’t have a choice. We do.

As economic uncertainty grows and an uneven recovery emerges, we cannot afford to ignore an unintended consequence of the Coronavirus. The outcome, which none of us want, could very possibly be a new, 21st-century style of discrimination. We can decide to ignore it or act to fight against it.

McCulloch is president and CEO of the Housing Partnership Equity Trust, a social-purpose real estate investment trust that acquires and preserves affordable housing in partnership with leading nonprofit apartment owners.

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The Housing Partnership Equity Trust is a social-purpose REIT that acquires and preserves affordable rental housing. www.hpequitytrust.com

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