What Are We Going to Do About Structural Inequities Highlighted by Pandemic?

By Nancy Cantor and Peter Englot

Higher education—like every sector of our economy—is hurting badly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the current crisis has served to throw into sharp relief structural inequities that we have allowed to exist for too long in our state and our nation despite the best of our knowledge. Racial inequity, in particular, has been hurting us badly for generations, and at universities like ours we see students as they walk the uneven path toward social mobility.

Months into the COVID-19 pandemic, we have only just begun to examine it through a racial-equity lens. The disparate impacts on health, jobs, housing, food, and education are glaring. They lay bare the architecture of segregation that frames black and brown communities: urban centers especially, but more generally geographically isolated; indigenous communities and neighborhoods with high numbers of undocumented families and frontline workers. The deadly weight of inequality surely is felt, too, in predominantly white rural communities that already faced the closing of plants and loss of jobs and the health vulnerabilities they bring. But recent research shows that wealth disparities have been growing most alarmingly for decades in our cities.

So these are hardly revelations, especially to us in New Jersey, where we have seen COVID-19’s disparate impacts progress up close as a hot spot of the pandemic and a landscape defined not only by our closeness to the epicenter in New York City, but by the density of our own demographic diversity divided vastly unevenly across urban-suburban-rural geographies. Initially, there was some recognition that when schools closed, students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, disproportionately represented in black, brown, undocumented and/or low-income districts, might lose their breakfast and lunch and that separating students with disabilities and those more generally behind the digital divide might substantially impact learning and academic progress. In New Jersey’s densely populated urban hot spots, concerns then surfaced about residents’ ability to pay rent when their jobs were deemed nonessential, and the stability of local homeowners who rent rooms and apartments to meet their mortgages. Attention finally turned to the disparately black and brown prison population, and their increased vulnerability in crowded cells. Eventually, it got directly to matters of life and death, as the stark reality of increased co-morbidity, pervasive and multigenerational lack of access to personal health care and inadequately supplied hospitals translated, day after day, into disparities in death rates by race, class, and community.

We know quite a lot about the pandemic’s disparate impacts by race. So, what are we going to do about it? There are steps that we know we could take on each of these disparities, but there is knowing and then there is knowing that leads to doing. As the great educational philosopher John Dewey suggested long ago: What good is knowing if we don’t do anything about it?

Will we act on what we know now to buffer the disparate impact of the next equivalent assault on our communities? Or, will we instead turn our backs on building stronger safety nets because “others” (and we know who they are) might be lifted up, even when such investments would ultimately benefit all of us; for example, as the next more diverse generation supports the aging, majority-white baby boom generation?
• Will we integrate our public schools?
• Will we use outcomes-based equity metrics to fund our public institutions, and connect—technologically and in person—all of our students, not just the fortunate ones, to stackable institutions that promise social mobility?
• Will we guard against displacement in our dense urban centers where new capital investment is both needed and feared?
• Will we invest in prison education and re-entry training, and hire formerly incarcerated individuals into our own organizations?
• Will we ask our anchor institutions to step up and invest locally?
• Will we pay-forward the contributions of our ever-resilient undocumented neighbors?
• And will we address the social determinants of health that brought us to such a tragic reckoning in the face of COVID-19 before the next pandemic?

Trillions and trillions of dollars will be spent in the coming months to shore up our broken economy. The first few hundred million is making its way to New Jersey right now to shore up higher education alone. But make no mistake: that will only address—and only in part—the symptoms of what ails us. Considering what we know-will we use the accumulated knowledge of our institutions that anchor our communities, and of our citizenry, to actually do something about it…together?

Nancy Cantor is Chancellor of Rutgers University–Newark; Peter Englot is Senior Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs and Chief of Staff at Rutgers University–Newark