By Aziah Siid | Word In Black

Photos by Saud Kamardeen/Unsplash

(WIB) – This story is part of Word In Black’s “Reparations Now” series exploring the fight for our modern-day 40 acres and a mule, and why Black Americans deserve justice. 

It’s the long shadow of slavery — the persistent specter of systemic racism and inequality looming over the daily lives of Black Americans in the United States 160 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

These inequalities can be seen in healthcare, finance, environmental injustice, and education. 

With a calculator that can tally up the amount of cash due to individuals for the racial harms they’ve suffered — and stolen property being returned to Black families — where does the dialogue on reparations leave Black students?

In the Classroom: The Unsettled Score of Educational Inequality

Whether it’s inequitable school funding models or pushing Black kids out of honors classes and into the prison pipeline — or criminalizing them because they film a white teacher saying the n-word  —  the racial disparities in the nation’s public schools have long been painfully obvious. 

How to adequately address the history of underserved K-12 students across the country took the front seat in education as post-COVID-19 data revealed the dispropriate impact remote learning had on Black and low-income students. 

“Being out of high school shows just how much we as students are a part of a system. Reparations could start with us.”LAILA DAVIS-RICHARDSON, FRESHMAN AT SAVANNAH COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN IN GEORGIA

Low standardized test results and an increase in suicide rates among Black students confirmed what many experts already knew: That Black students have had their access to a quality education blocked by American institutions for decades. 

Given that students experience this educational inequity first-hand daily, many are also aware of the ongoing discourse about reparations, and many have ideas on what reparations can do to change the Black experience in public schools.

A Student Perspective

Laila Davis-Richardson, 19, a freshman at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, attended majority Black public schools in New York City and Florida. She says she acquired most of her knowledge about reparations through social media platforms and listening to others talk about it. 

“Everything I learned about reparations was not learned in school,” Davis-Richardson says. “I feel like that impacted my learning, and I have a right to learn the truth about my history.”

Davis-Richardson left the state of Florida before “Stop Woke” reached her classrooms, but she says reparations starts with allowing students to truly be who they are and learn what they deserve to be taught. 

“Being out of high school shows just how much we as students are a part of a system. Reparations could start with us, ” Davis-Richardson says. People need to “learn about Black history, not block it.”

Some students hold fast to the ‘slavery is long gone’ line of thinking. Some students are frozen by the magnitude of the harm: How could any amount of money ever properly address the wickedness of slavery and racism?URSULA WOLFE-ROCCO, A ZINN EDUCATION PROJECT WRITER AND ORGANIZER

Aniya John, 17, a new graduate of Cristo Rey Brooklyn high school, says reparations looks like the government giving and paying for the necessities of Black Americans — like health care and portions of their education. 

“Reparations shouldn’t just be limited to cash or opportunity” for past harms, John says. She believes it “should be considered for serious matters, like police brutality.”

What she wants in the here and now is “to be treated like everyone else, to be heard like everyone else. It’s not just compensation for ‘Oh, your ancestors were slaves, so we’ll give you $10,000,’” she says. 

John says she also got most of her knowledge about reparations from her family. 

“I’m aware of reparations due to my background and family members,” she says. “I feel like this is extremely important to learn because, in high school, everybody’s figuring themselves out, but you can’t know yourself without your history.” 

Luckily for John, she participated in outside activities that connected her with a deeper understanding of Africana studies. This, in turn, led to her engagement with the dialogue surrounding reparations. 

Fortunately, some cities are taking student voices like Davis-Richardson’s and John’s into consideration as they explore their reparations plans. 

In Boston, a city historically notorious as a central hub for the transatlantic slave trade, Mayor Michelle Wu announced in Feb. 2023 that she was launching a 10-person task force to study reparations for the city. The task force will include two K-12 students from Jeremiah E. Burke High School, which has a predominately Black and Brown student population. 

Teaching Reparations in the Classroom 

Ursula Wolfe-Rocco, a Zinn Education Project writer and organizer, collaborated with a group of teachers to develop a curriculum to teach students about reparations, make them comfortable speaking about it, and create solutions that would work for them. 

“We find students struggle to unleash their critical imaginations,” Wolfe-Rocco tells Word In Black. “It’s hard to get dialogue, conversation, a proliferation of ideas bubbling up in the classroom.”

Lessons like How to Make Amends help students understand all the many forms reparations have taken in different places. Repair: Students Build a Reparations Bill exposes them to policy creation and congressional discussions about a topic that directly impacts them.  

Reparations for people of color is to make amends for all the tragic and troubled things that they had to go through for generations.ANIYA JOHN, A NEW GRADUATE OF CRISTO REY BROOKLYN HIGH SCHOOL

“Some students hold fast to the ‘slavery is long gone’ line of thinking. Some students are frozen by the magnitude of the harm: How could any amount of money ever properly address the wickedness of slavery and racism?” Wolfe-Rocco says.

“Other students worry about the practical questions: Who would be eligible to receive payment? What form would payment take? How long would a reparations program last, and how much would it cost? These responses are understandable and important.” 

How Reparations Could Look for K-12  

In 2020, Khalilah M. Harris — a former managing director of K-12 education policy at the Center for American Progress and the first deputy director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans in the Obama administration —  drafted her thoughts on the best roadmap to reparations for education. 

Among her suggestions was the need for Public Education Opportunity Grants, proposed by the Center for American Progress, to “dramatically increase the federal investment in K-12 education and fill the annual $23 billion gap in state and local funding between predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite school districts.” 

Similar to the many advocates who were out on Teach Truth Day, Harris suggests incentivizing state education agencies to “conduct deep racial-equity audits, eliminate whitewashed curriculum, implement strategies to promptly address negative racial impacts, and establish frameworks for applying a race-equity lens to future policy and programming decisions.” 

In addition, she mentioned creating “a grant program to improve teacher preparation, recruitment, and ongoing professional development that fully incorporates culturally responsive pedagogy and acknowledges the new majority of students of color in public schools across America.”

In the meantime, the nation will certainly be looking toward what the California Reparations Task Force comes up with. In their interim report published in 2022, the task force found that Black Californians as a collective lost $800 billion as a result of over-policing, disproportionate incarceration, and housing discrimination. 

“Reparations for people of color is to make amends for all the tragic and troubled things that they had to go through for generations,” John says.

Given that, surely Black students in California — and elsewhere — are wondering when, if, and how the racial harms they experience in school will be addressed.