What, to the Black student, is reparations? What, to the Black teacher, is reparations? What, to the Black school leader, is reparations?
In the crucible of our racial climate, as we continually call the names of Treyvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Atatiana Jefferson, Tamir Rice and so many others, the idea of economic reparations for Black descendants of American slavery is reverberating with renewed dynamism. But oft neglected in this reverberation is meaningful thought of what reparations means for Black students — a generation stained by blood shed at the hands of white supremacist police murder, legalized slavery framed as mass incarceration and mass shootings in communal and sacred spaces. Approaching one of the most consequential presidential elections of my lifetime, as a Black, male charter school superintendent, not only is a morally insolvent president on the ballot, but also an ethically aberrant department of education. Thus, the question echoes as we approach November — What, to the Black student, is reparations?
Since General William T. Sherman’s “40 acres and a mule,” white conservatives have framed the question of reparations as one of individual sin. But contrary to this apologue, reparations for Black students are not a movement about, or an indictment on individual sin (though the individual sin is worthy of indictment). Reparations in our context is state-sanctioned quittance to the policing, murder, disenfranchisement, muting, redlining, no-child-left-behind’ing, every-student-succeeding, standardized-testing, third-grade-reading-scores-prison-constructing, building-neglecting, look-straight-in-front-of-you-hands-down’ing, teacher underpaying and community-underfunding impacting millions of Black students for the advancement of the American democratic experiment. Reparations is about atoning for the structural sins of zero-tolerance policies, prison-modeled behavioral codes, unmerciful uniform demands and white supremacist culture teaching approaches while touting mission statements, with words like authenticity, success, equity, joy, integrity, curiosity, excellence and just about any other word that embodies aspirational-morality that you could conceive.
While white male supremacy constructed the philosophical premise of public schooling — Black teachers, counselors, social workers, professors, academic advisors, Black principals and superintendents intentionally navigate its racist construction to create a landscape — academic, economic, social, artistic, political and cultural — that gives Black students the self-assurance and strategies to make sense of their lives in a land that legislatively devalues their very existence. After years of doing that work, no wonder many Black folx in academic spaces view reparations with a disenchanted eye. As one high school student, Darrell, reflected of his school experience, “If we can’t get the toilets fixed, clean water from the fountain to not have to bring a bottle every day or the moldy-roof fixed in the library, we can forget reparations.” He added, “You know it wasn’t until 10th grade that I read a book by someone who wasn’t a dead white man? And that was because I had my first Black English teacher. Crazy, right?”
Crazy, indeed, that the base-standard of reparations for one of our students is a working toilet, clean drinking water, the removal of mold and an opportunity for identity-access in literature.
Most of our academic tactics and metrics only work to reforge a white republic as our nation increasingly Blackens and browns, a trend that unnerves whiteness. Dr. Bettina Love, author of We Want to Do More Than Survive, unveils the haunting truth that as a result of mandated federal policies attached to school funding, “we stopped protecting dark students’ potential, if we ever had.” In fact, the Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA) and No Child Left Behind, both of which reauthorized the 1965 ‘Elementary and Secondary Education Act’, written when Black folx were still fighting to be seen as full-citizens, functioned as reworded schemes of progress, while fueling and fossilizing the moral filth of white supremacist Americanism.
Now, after months of a global pandemic, as we begin strategizing our reentries into school buildings, it is clearer than ever that Black students are disproportionately impacted by food, housing, health and income insecurities, all of which threaten to unravel the thinly-woven fabric of our republic. Overnight, the veil of schools was lifted for people to see our role as food-providers, healthcare centers, income-supplementers and identity sanctuaries for our students. And now, creating a new normal, the questions should be ringing in our souls — What, to the Black student … what, to the Black teacher … what to the Black school leader, is reparations?
Reparations is an inclusive and moral department of education that empowers, mobilizes and resources its students and teachers equitably — ensuring the highest-level of resources in response to the highest-level of need. Reparations is an historically-responsive, culturally-relevant curriculum that accurately and authentically depicts Black suffering, Black resilience and Black participation in nation-building. Reparations is a federally-mandated teacher-wage minimum that accounts for the time, investment and integrity it demands to ensure a cognitive, literary, mathematical and social-emotional roadmap for students. Reparations is a willingness to recreate our academic proficiency metrics to account for the indigenous, inherent knowledge that students bring into the classroom. Reparations is for white folx to show up as coconspirators, not allies and accomplishes, in the exhausting work of calling other white folx in, and out, on their microaggressions, biases and racism. Reparations is restructuring pathways to teacher-preparation programs as a way to widen access for those with the will to do this work, but not the resources. Reparations is white liberal charter school leaders yielding power to Black folx whom, at base level, identify with the racial trauma and burdens of the students being cared for. Reparations is annual salary audits of all schools that receive public funds of even one-dollar to ensure racial compensation equity for equivalent-titles and responsibilities. Reparations is a radically-human, trauma-responsive paid-time off (PTO) policy. And, reparations is delaying the reopening of school buildings in our most vulnerable communities, reallocating the monies saved from not operating to supplement the food, health and income insecurities of our families.
Without a vision for reparations, our students are plagued to continue enduring the white, capitalist, patriarchal imagination of people like Thomas Jefferson, who led the American empire in envisioning public schooling to stratify the laborers and the learned. Alas, the public reckoning on racism happening in streets across this nation provides us with an opportunity to disrupt the Jeffersoninan imagination that inherently rejects the dignity of Black students, and invites the reconstruction of an America where an equitable, abolitionist democracy is realizable for all students, but expressly for Black students.
Dr. Robert S. Harvey is superintendent and senior managing director of East Harlem Scholars Academies, a network of five charter schools in New York City. He is also a visiting professor of race, leadership, and religion.