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INSIGHT: Universities Should Stay Closed to Protect Workers of Color

June 25, 2020, 8:01 AM

Over several nights in early June, university presidents publicly shared messages about the grave risks that our nation faces from both police brutality and Covid-19. In those messages, they recognized that many of those hit the hardest by police violence and the pandemic are people of color from communities already burdened by racism, exclusion, and poverty.

But we believe that university commitments to equality are at grave risk now, as those same institutions make decisions about whether and how to reopen campuses in the fall. Many schools plan to require university workers to return to campus at the end of the summer, allowing them to remain at home if they qualify under a narrowly-defined disability framework that would leave many workers potentially vulnerable to Covid-19 infection.

Requiring university workers to return to campus disproportionately exposes the very communities that university presidents have already acknowledged are at unequal risk of coronavirus infection.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 32% of university and college workers are people of color. If campuses are reopened, these workers of color will disproportionately suffer the risks of hospitalization and death.

As many in the university community have acknowledged, our institutions cannot guarantee worker safety. There is much uncertainty about the risks involved. At the current moment, two and a half months from opening day, universities have not yet developed the capacity to test, trace, treat and isolate in ways that would create a safe place for workers or other members of the university community. With the prospect of a second wave of Covid-19, the danger and uncertainty will only become more acute.

Reopening Will Reinforce Racial Disparities

What experts are certain about is that reopening campuses will reproduce and reinforce existing racial disparities. Workers of color bear an uneven risk of hospitalization and death. People of color are more likely to suffer from underlying health conditions—diagnosed and undiagnosed—that put them at disproportionate risk: asthma, diseases accompanied by compromised immunity, diabetes, heart conditions, respiratory ailments, to name a few.

People of color are less likely to have access to good medical care to treat those conditions or coronavirus infections, should they become infected.

People of color are also more likely to be the essential workers in the university setting who are exposed to more risk—those who clean university spaces, who interact with students as support staff, the facilities managers, adjuncts and food service employees.

And workers of color are more likely to end up back on campus, even within a disability framework. They are more likely to need the money, and more likely to occupy positions at the bottom of the ladder that render them unable to make demands, to apply for disability exemptions, or know how to qualify for a disability exemption. The risks of returning to campus are not shared equally.

Given the racial distribution of benefit and cost, it would be deeply inconsistent with a commitment to equality to give students—who experts say are less at risk—a choice about whether to return to campus and not give the same choice to those more at risk. Students are not consumers whose desire for in-person education should be met by putting the university’s workers of color at risk.

At the very least, university workers should be given a choice: they should be asked to volunteer to staff essential positions, and all workers should continue to be paid, including those who find the return to campus to pose an unacceptable risk.

Rather than gambling with people’s safety, universities should keep campuses closed. As we discovered last semester, we can fulfill large parts of our core mission—educating students and contributing to knowledge—without endangering the lives of university workers of color. It is true that certain pedagogical activities, for instance, laboratory and arts courses, cannot be conducted easily online. Online education is not the answer for all instructional needs.

Still, we can devote the resources that would otherwise be spent on the costs of prematurely reopening campus—repeated testing, tracing and treating among others—to strengthening our online capacity and finding solutions for those whom online instruction does not serve as well.

Several universities have decided to move ahead with all online teaching this fall, including six graduate school units at Harvard (Law, Public Health and Divinity among them) and the entire California State system with its 770,000 students. These schools have concluded that they cannot safely provide an on-campus program at this time.

The benefits of higher education on a reopened campus should not be delivered at the expense of the health of the university’s workers, and disproportionately, workers of color. If universities cannot provide a safe environment for all university workers, we should keep campuses closed and continue to support health, safety and economic well-being for everyone.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Daria Roithmayr is the Richard L. and Antoinette S. Kirtland Professor of Law at USC Gould School of Law, and teaches and writes about persistent structural racism in labor, housing, political participation, wealth and education. She is the author of “Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock in White Advantage” and a forthcoming book entitled “Racism Pays.”

Gregg Gonsalves is an assistant professor, epidemiology of microbial diseases at Yale School of Public Health (YSPH), and co-directs the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership, a collaboration between YSPH and Yale Law School, which works on issues at the interface of public health and social justice.

Anthony Paul Farley is the Peter Rodino Distinguished Visiting Professor at Rutgers Law School (2020) and the Matthews Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence at Albany Law School.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor is an assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University, and is the author of award-winning books including “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation”; and “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.”

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva is the James B. Duke Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Duke University, and has published on color-blind racism, racial stratification in the USA, racial grammar, HWCUs, race and human rights, race and citizenship, and whiteness. His books include “Racism without Racists Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America.”

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