“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.” ― James Baldwin
COVID-19 has drastically changed our lives. We’ve all been bound by a traumatic, historical event. However, universalism only goes so far in a society riddled with historic inequities. As this pandemic spreads across the country, it has become increasingly clear that America’s past and present have left many communities disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of this pandemic: mainly of those are working class and of color, with Black people dying at the highest rates across much of the nation. In our own community, these groups include campus service workers and West Harlem residents. For those of us that live with these identities every day, this is no surprise.
The University’s announcement urging students to leave campus exposed the existing inequities between fellow students. For some students, this meant moving back to their quiet, uneventful hometown; for others, this meant homelessness, moving back with abusive families, isolation, and financial insecurity.
In our time on campus, we found ourselves and other students advocating for needs that best serve the interest of all students, but especially those of historically marginalized communities and identities. At times, some of our asks began to feel irrational and impossible. However, now that we are in a moment that is affecting all students, the University administration, professors, faculty, and students all seem to be more willing to make changes that affect us all.
This is commendable to some degree. It is clear that when the University community needs to come together to support one another, most initiatives are possible. Nevertheless, the University’s selective action sends a message that the needs and concerns of the most marginalized communities are not as important as those that seemingly affect the majority. As a result, some needs are being met in ways that were previously thought to be unimaginable, and other concerns have yet to be addressed.
Some questions have yet to be answered by the University because they do not follow the same principle of universality for concerns outside of the aforementioned ones. The most pressing of these concerns has been in regard to the student contribution, which disproportionately affects students from families with lower-incomes. The responsibility to address this concern has still largely fallen on low-income students, as it did before the COVID-19 outbreak, because they are the ones who must urge the administration to change its policies, both in the immediate present and in the future.
On April 14, Barnard announced that it would waive its summer contribution for incoming and continuing students, and we hope (and expect) for Columbia to follow suit. While this issue has always been present for low-income students, this concern should now be at the forefront of many people’s minds, as jobs are being suspended and internships are being canceled daily. This suggests what many already knew, that this is an issue that affects low-income students in a way that it doesn’t affect other, wealthier, students.
Fortunately, Columbia’s administration and many professors have been especially accommodating during these times, taking into account the extreme conditions of this unprecedented moment to make policies that best support as many students as possible. However, the fact that it took a pandemic to provide accommodations that students from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities have historically been begging for should not be lost on us.
In these past weeks, we’ve seen mass accommodations for online classes. Attendance policies have changed to help support students, with lectures being recorded to account for a variety of concerns. Suddenly, books that had to be purchased are now available as free PDFs and are allowed—even encouraged—to be used in class. Counseling and Psychological Services has developed virtual support groups focused on different identities including one on racial and ethnic bias. These accommodations, among others, seem simple and small; however, these have been concerns for low-income students, students of varying abilities, queer and transgender students, and students of color long before this pandemic began.
Just as how COVID-19 has further exposed on both a national and international scale, we can see here on our own campus that there are disparities among us, leaving some more vulnerable than others. We also can see that these disparities can be quickly addressed when it appears to be a concern of many. Both on campus and across the globe, we have to learn to practice care and community for one another and to understand the ways that our daily interactions with one another are interconnected.
Additionally, we have to acknowledge the way that our history and present affect our lives today. There are groups of people that have been historically marginalized and silenced, ensuring that their concerns and needs are not accounted for. These communities and the people within them are still affected by this historic and current marginalization. We cannot only have universal solutions when we have not had universal discrimination. As we continue to work through and hopefully come out of this pandemic together, we must remember and center these voices as we talk about change both on campus and off of it. We must remember our history in this historic moment.
Heven is a University senator and Colby is the race and ethnicity representative for the Columbia College Student Council. Heven is studying American Studies and Colby is studying African American Studies. As Black students and students of history, they would like to remind everyone to remember the spirit of the past in our discussions of campus and global life, both during this pandemic and outside of it.
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