Art for Class Struggles.
School's out, for now. | Ronnie Pitman

Class Struggles

Labor strife and “mommy wars” loom as some push to reopen schools

School's out, for now. | Ronnie Pitman
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The mothers of America are exhausted. Many Black and brown ones have never been able to shelter in place, because a large percentage of them are doing the frontline work that others will not. The white mothers who are not poor are still stuck at home with their children, inching ever closer to complete mental breakdowns borne of trying to juggle careers with full-time parenting. Managing children stuck at home falls disproportionately in the exhausted laps of women. Mothers of every race feel forgotten, wronged, betrayed.

The Trump administration, canny in this matter in a way it refuses to be in others, has taken up the cause of one segment of mothers. “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” tweeted President Donald Trump in early July. His education secretary Betsy DeVos echoed the call. It was aimed to please the now-very-fed-up suburban white women who marched the president to victory last time. It makes sense to be their savior this time. But the position isn’t just a Trump thing. “American children need public schools to reopen in the fall,” wrote the editorial board of the New York Times on July 13. Children learn “to compete and to cooperate” at school, they pleaded. Kids just have to be sent back to where they belong.

Those who labor at schools are not so sure. Even as the rosy dawn of consensus between Trumpers and New York Times readers seemed to rise over the horizon, teachers marched into the battlefield. They weren’t interested in sticking themselves in the path of all the germs children—and fellow teachers—were going to bring with them. A little over two weeks after the New York Times editorial prescribing a reopening was published, the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s largest teacher’s union, authorized all of its member unions to strike in their districts and counties. It was, for a usually peaceable lot, an act of war.

Now, everyone is searching for a third way, and some have already found one. Capitalism is nothing if not a promise of offering up poorer humans who can take the risks, bear the toil, raise the pyramids of the pharaohs of the era. Black and brown women disproportionately do the caring and tending of America’s young and old; they are likely to be called to do even more. By forming neighborhood “pods,” some upper-middle-class parents who may not be able to hire a child-care provider for just their own children can dangle their collective dollars and lure poorer workers out of their own homes to teach or to baby-sit for others.

Black and brown women disproportionately do the caring and tending of America’s young and old; now they are likely to be called to do even more.

It already appears to be a successful, if potentially exploitative venture. “NannyPod” is a website looking to create networks of child care providers and parents in need of them. There are a ton of listings already; one from the suburbs of Seattle promises payment of $15/hour for thirty-seven hours of child care each week. Just like there has been a racial dimension to which women have been forced out to work during the pandemic (largely Black and Latina women), so too will there be a racial dimension to who responds to ads such as these.

Here, then, is the racially charged edition of the Mommy Wars. Black and Latina women, many of them sole breadwinners and heads of household, are the ones who will inevitably have to do the work of the upper-middle-class white women who “can’t keep doing this.” The discrepancy in economic power will dictate who has to take on the higher risk of infection; often, it will be the woman who minds the babies of strangers, so that white middle-class women can continue climbing their individual ladders of success and achievement. And, in the final cruel irony, less prosperous workers may also feel the need to open schools, since they can’t afford to pay for their own children’s care in “pods,” thus pulling them further into the circle of coronavirus risk.

White women’s labor has often rested on the backs of Black and brown women, who take on the menial and the minute so that the former can take over the board room and break the glass ceiling. This latest chapter in the sordid story, ignored by many feminists in their happy picturing of women helping other women, is particularly grave. Armed with the pooled money for pods, white upper-middle-class women are demanding that poorer women take on health risks if schools are unwilling. Child care workers know a crisis is coming; two days before the American Federation of Teachers declared that they had authorized strikes around the country, the child care workers in California voted to unionize. California Childcare Workers United has 43,000 members, most of whom are Black and Latina. Those who voted for the union noted low pay and arbitrary work rules as the main reason for joining.

Covid-19 has magnified all the existing inequities in society, including inequities in risk. It is notable that in all the dirges detailing the agonies of parenting during Covid-19, men have not featured very prominently. One explanation for this is simply men throwing up their hands, leaving child care to their wives, who then hire other women. The balancing of the upper-middle-class family dynamic beyond the short term is prefaced not on an equal and sustainable sharing of burdens but in finding a third party to make up the slack for what men will not do, or do poorly.

If there is a feminist conundrum in all of this, it is the lack of scrutiny afforded to this bit of the story. Upper-middle-class white men, confident in the centrality of their careers, doff their burdens on their spouses. These spouses, who usually rely on school or child care to make their own careers possible, feel powerless in the absence of those resources. It is a descending act of shoving care work onto others. In the end, these others are Black and brown women, whose exploitation is condemned in theory, yet are nevertheless expected to offer up their bodies, their health, their well-being, so that a white man’s world can remain undisturbed, and white women can finally get some relief.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times Book Review.

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