“When white America sneezes, Black America catches pneumonia.” That old public health axiom has been echoing in my head for a few weeks now, getting louder and more gong-like as we fall further into this pandemic. I can’t help but see this sentiment everywhere I look, with reaches far beyond the world of public health. It echoes in the scary death rates of Black Americans from this virus, in the turning of our collective heads to the struggle of so many people of color in our education systems, in the relentless cry of so many at the persistent and brutal assault of the Black body at hands of police officers, or bigoted and violent white citizens, and in the painful and deadly realities that Black Americans are facing each day, in almost every system this country has envisioned, imagined, and built. And tragically, in the eyes of George Floyd.

Racism has stained every aspect of this country, and whether we as white Americans choose to grapple with that reality is one of the many privileges afforded to whiteness. Arresting, charging, and jailing some racist cops and villainous citizens serves as a band-aid on a gaping wound, and unless we deal with that long-infected wound at its core, the blood will continue to pour through. That blood, running with currents of history and present, is on white America’s collective hands.

I’m writing here as an educator in a small, racially divided, and segregated city wedged right in the armpit of America’s Midwest and Northeast corridors. James Baldwin’s words on racism in systems on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1968 show the prophetic vision of Baldwin and point clearly to our reality here in Pittsburgh along with so many other cities. He said, “I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions.” In other words, are feelings what matter if the systems are murderous?

“I don’t know if the board of education hates Black people,” Baldwin continued. “But I know the textbooks they give our children to read and the schools that we have to go to.”

Pittsburgh, my city, is just one example of this. On March 13th, our last day of school in the 2019-20 year, so many of us scrambled for answers to serve our students. There were rumors that the state was asking us to stop offering instruction because of FAPE and LRE concerns. We were trying to figure out how a fast-evolving emergency was going to have an ongoing impact in our schools. We were trying to figure out how to get our families the food, and computers, and the internet so that we could even begin to imagine instruction again. Of our city’s nine high schools, just two of them barely missed a beat. It’s no accident that these two schools are fully magnet, with one scrapping the normal lottery for site-based selection based on performing art skills, and the other being a highly contested lottery with GPA minimums for students and site-based ability to remove students who are struggling to maintain those grades.

These two schools got to keep going, with students using their one-to-one technology to access instruction soon after the shutdown. But that is not the only way that these two schools are outliers in our city. Both of them are significantly “whiter” than our overall population, significantly “wealthier” than our overall population, and they have significantly lower populations of students with disabilities compared to the rest of the city.

It may be tempting to blame the schools for allowing this to happen, or even to point some accusatory liberal white hands at the district that enables this, but it’s probably more accurate to point those liberal white fingers at ourselves, and our demand as white parents for schools that look like this. It is what Nichole Hannah Jones has called “curated diversity,” or schools in cities that don’t remotely reflect the demographics of the city, but allow for many white, and usually politically “progressive” parents to find educational islands on which they are comfortable.

And then you have the statistical realities of that system that exist downstream from those decisions. You have schools that are mostly Black, mostly poor, and have disproportionate percentages of students with disabilities. And here is where things get a little complicated. I believe that mostly Black and mostly poor schools could be excellent, and we have many examples of these institutions nationwide, but the problem with America is that resources and protections almost always follow white people, and then we pretend that there isn’t enough for our Black and Brown neighbors. Jones also often argues that Brown V. Board of Education wasn’t because Black students wanted to be in white schools, but because Black families knew that the only way to ensure resources and opportunities for their children was by securing a seat in the same schools that white children sat in.

So, we have deeply segregated schools, and they are segregated in almost every way that you can imagine. This should have been a moral outrage for the last 500 years, and it was certainly impacting student experience before March 13, 2020.

But then, a pandemic hit. And our nation’s schools had to figure out how to move forward. Well, we said, it is only logical to get these students moving with learning because they already have computers. We wouldn’t want to hold them back. They said that we are worried about virtual learning for our students with disabilities, but since we had these schools with such low percentages of those students, we could figure it out there.

In the school down the road and the school in which I am honored to teach, things are going to be more complicated. Thirty percent of the student there have IEPs that will take some time to figure out, and our survey showed us that 70% of those students didn’t have access to a computer at home. That school will have to wait. In the end, had to wait 6 weeks to get started.

It’s no accident that “that school” is almost 90% Black as well. That parents are doing everything that they possibly can to make sure that their children have what they need to keep learning, even if it means spending their much-needed stimulus checks on laptops.

And the axiom shifts. “When white schools sneeze, Black schools are on life support.”

I’m not sure there are simple answers to any of this. But it seems important to look past all of our sneezes right now and try to notice where others are dying. Then go stand with them.

By Jason Boll
English Teacher, Perry High School
A+ Schools Board Member