Index cards — check. Pencils — check. Three-ring binder — check. Copy of Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” — check.
Parents, you’ll be paying a little bit more this year for school supplies, so please prioritize the essentials. According to the 2019 annual survey on school supply spending by the National Retail Federation, a retail trade association, and the research group, Prosper Insights and Analytics, families of children in elementary through high school will spend nearly $700 on average throughout the academic year, up approximately $12 from last year’s estimates.
At just over $40,000, black median household income ranks the lowest among the racial categories. So before spending on add-ons, we need to get the basics — such as Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” which in paperback costs roughly $10.
Teachers, too, are feeling the pinch. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, the government agency charged with collecting education data, most teachers say they spend their own money — on average about $479 — to pay for school supplies. Teachers are able to deduct $250 from their taxes for school supplies, which falls significantly below what they pay for. Clearly, families and teachers must spend their resources judiciously.
Given the recent attacks by President Donald Trump and other politicos on black-majority cities and neighborhoods, it’s imperative that we remember that bolstering our collective self-esteem begins with instilling self-worth in our students, starting on the first days of school. In a tweet attack on July 27 directed at U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is black, Trump disparaged the congressman’s district of Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” Trump isn’t the first leader to belittle a black-majority district, and he likely won’t be the last. In March of this year, The Washington Post reported that a state delegate from a neighboring county called Prince George’s County, which is 62 percent black, an “[n-word] district.”
Black communities have value, but our neighborhoods, schools, teachers and other assets are devalued by those who seek to rob us of our resources for their political and financial gain. The devaluation of our communities has a negative impact on the resources that should be going to our schools. My research shows that black-majority communities lost $156 billion in home equity simply because homes in these communities are devalued because of perceptions of black people. School districts, too, lose millions in tax revenue because the neighborhoods in which they are located — and whose taxes support the district — are devalued.
Devaluation affects not only how many pens and how much paper students have access to, but also their social and emotional wellbeing. Learning that people in power think you are just not good enough is terrible for the self-esteem of a child and a community. So we can fight back by equipping our children with tools that help them know their true worth — and for high schoolers, one of the best of these tools is “The Bluest Eye,” written by the celebrated Pulitzer Prize winner who passed away last week at the age of 88.
I was introduced to Morrison my freshman year in college in an English literature class. I can say unequivocally that the book changed my life and to this day influences my research around devaluation. One scene, in particular, affected me: One of the main characters, Cholly Breedlove, a black man, has a sexual encounter in his younger years. Two white men witness it, and instead of turning away, force the couple to continue as they watch, demeaning them in the process. The imagery shocked me, but my transformation as a person and scholar began when I noticed how often the black people around me were reduced and devalued. I started to see that in spite of all my faults, I had value, though others tried to take it from me. This demeaning, devaluing behavior is a practice born of racism that diminishes the physical and emotional assets of the person it is being done to.
Here’s one example. Concerned about the supposed rise of unruly behavior in Oxford, Mississippi, home to the University of Mississippi, alumnus and former faculty member and administrator, Ed Meek, erroneously posted on Facebook two separate pictures of African American women along with the caption, “Enough, Oxford and Ole Miss leaders, get on top of this before it is too late.” For Meek, after whom the Meek School of Journalism and New Media was named, the women’s presence at 2 a.m. apparently represented the decline of the town of Oxford, home to the university. “A 3 percent decline in enrollment is nothing compared to what we will see if this continues … and real estate values will plummet as will tax revenue,” Meek wrote.
Obviously, the mere presence of black women doesn’t devalue homes. However, signaling that they do can negatively impact housing markets. Meek served as the university’s assistant vice chancellor for public relations and marketing for 37 years. He issued a half-hearted apology days later. “I have done as you requested, Chancellor,” Meek wrote. “I am sorry I posted those pictures but there was no intent to imply a racial issue. My intent was to highlight we do have a problem in The Grove and on the Oxford Square.”
But how did he make those black women feel? How did he make other black people in the area feel? Devaluing is about putting people in their place. That $10 copy of “The Bluest Eye” — and everything it represents — is a long-term investment in a child’s education we can’t afford not to have.
This story about “The Bluest Eye” was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.