H.R. 40 in Congress and Assembly Bill A2619A in the New York State Legislature, if passed, would establish commissions to investigate and develop a program of reparations to remedy the lasting effects of the enslavement and oppression of Black people in America and New York, respectively.
Although neither of these bills have been passed yet and no reparations plans have been officially proposed, I would like to make a few recommendations to these committees regarding the implementation of reparations in education.
Reparations are meant to give Black Americans the agency that has been withheld for centuries. Financial reparations are a necessary component, but they cannot be the entirety of a program of reparations. True reparations require that all institutions which have denied Black Americans control of our lives must be fundamentally altered or destroyed in a way which puts all Black people on equal footing with white Americans.
Here are a few of my recommendations.
- Expand Affirmative Action at Every Level
White Americans have held Black Americans back, and the purpose of reparations is to move us forward. All reparations are affirmative action in the most general sense. More specifically, admissions policies must be changed to make admissions into all schools, programs, and classes easier for Black students.
Where I went to school for K-8, there were initially 45 students in my grade. Many students couldn’t handle the academics or the environment and ended up leaving the school. Clearly, the school’s admissions methods did a poor job selecting adequately qualified students. However, it was only white students who left. Evidently, the school had had higher admissions standards for their Black and Asian students. Their standards were so much higher, in fact, that only 4.4% of my grade was Black in a city which is 24% Black. A fair policy would have admitted an equal proportion of unprepared Black students instead of admitting less prepared white students in their place. Black children deserve the same chance to succeed as their white peers, but currently those chances are deliberately given to already privileged white children instead.
This is the problem affirmative action can fix. The admissions standards are already evidently unfair. It’s not hard to see that. But, it will be just as easy to see the improvements when they actually begin to fix the problem and repair the ongoing damage they have been doing by advancing incompetent white children ahead of Black children.
- Help Students Fail Gracefully
Increased affirmative action will likely lead to schools admitting Black students who are just as ill-prepared as their white students. They should be given as much support as possible, but as I’ve written before, the greatest privilege in education is the privilege of being able to fail or give up and still succeed. Those who benefit most from the school system are those who are lucky enough not to need it.
When I wanted to leave Stuyvesant, my parents were convinced that I’d be throwing away all the great opportunities and resume items I would need to succeed in life. They weren’t 100% wrong, but they should have been.
Very few activities should involve high risks when stopping in the middle. Unlike piloting planes and open heart surgery, education should be something where it is okay to change your mind in the middle or switch to a different path when you realize the current one isn’t working.
So, educational institutions must support Black students when they want to explore other majors, take extra classes in other subject areas, or travel the world. They should be supported in exploring at least all of the paths that white children in fancy suburbs get to explore in their segregated, property tax-funded public schools. Arts, STEM, teaching and so many other programs must be funded at every possible level of schooling so that the financial burden of education does not fall on students’ families, and so that students have the opportunity to find or build their strengths. Failing one course of study or leaving one school doesn’t mean you’ve failed every course of study or that you’re bad at school, and it doesn’t mean you should be prevented from trying again.
Access to those programs should be made more accessible to people who might not attend particular elite schools or who have already completed a particular program taught by particular faculty. Black students should be given the opportunity and ability to pick and choose what they study and who they become without worrying about incurring debt. This will help to make all paths more accessible to Black students, making it a very rare occurrence for anyone to be the only Black person in the room.
- Hire More Black Teachers
Hiring more Black teachers would require making higher education more accessible, not just via affirmative action, but also via increased financial support for Black students. I only ever had one Black teacher after preschool. I’d have liked to at least have had the chance to experience another.
Schools should be legally permitted or encouraged to give hiring preference to Black teachers, even if they might have less experience than other white teachers. This will help Black students and give the teachers more experience to make them better teachers.
- Decentralize Schools
This suggestion is inspired by NYC, but can be applied more generally. In 1967, the NYC Department of Education created three decentralized school districts which gave more school control to each district’s particular community. In the Ocean Hill-Brownsville district, the majority Black community embraced this change which they had been campaigning for. They began hiring Black teachers and transferring white teachers, but the majority white United Federation of Teachers went on strike. They ended the experiment in community control and put back the teachers they wanted in the schools, against the community’s wishes.
The prior year, when the African American Teachers Association had challenged the UFT’s proposed program for Black schools and the “disruptive child clause” in UFT teachers’ contracts which allowed teachers to have students easily removed from schools at the teacher’s discretion, the UFT went on strike and the city let them keep their power over Black children.
These were deliberate, explicit, and successful attempts to maintain white power at the expense of Black people which still haven’t been remedied. If reparations are meant to give back the power that has been taken from Black people, community control of schools is an excellent way to do that.
These are only a few of my suggestions. Next week I will detail even more of my recommendations for educational institutions which must implement reparations and the reparations committees which may make guidelines on how to implement them.