A Roadmap for Reparations in Education

Opinion

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Suggestions for confronting the legacy of institutional racism

By

Khalilah M. Harris

On campaign trails recently, a serious discussion has emerged about the debt the United States government owes its Black citizens, who continue to face obstacles to achieving the American dream as a result of the lasting effects of enslavement. The killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Elijah McClain unleashed a wave of racial unrest linked to the disproportionate impacts of police violence on communities of color. A demand for reparations has resurfaced full force as the nation reckons with that and other legacies of institutional racism. Any attempts to address these social ills must include equitable funding and designs for schools that afford every child an opportunity to break through the ceiling of systemic injustice.

Through centuries of policy and practice, from being subjected to barbaric slave codes to being redlined into ZIP codes with limited opportunity for upward mobility, Black people have been mistreated and blocked from opportunity by American institutions. To various degrees and at different times, they have been denied education, health care, homeownership, employment, and the vote. These injustices show up in the classroom as troubling gaps in achievement, disparities in school discipline, and ongoing inconsistencies in college access and completion that ultimately contribute to a wealth gap that will take more than 100 years to close if nothing changes. The COVID-19 pandemic has further distinguished the opportunity divide.

New York is a good example of racialized educational injustice. The city has faced an ongoing struggle to admit Black and Latinx students to its specialized high schools in proportion to their numbers in the public school student population. Admission is determined by a single test, even though the results of end-of-course tests would not similarly disadvantage Black and Latinx students. Adding to the inequity, Black and Latinx students do not generally have access to the same quality of preparation as white students. And we need no other reminder of just how uneven the playing field is for Black people seeking access to upward mobility through education than the massive college-admissions scandal in 2019.

“Historic and systemic inequity in educational opportunity is a debt that must be paid.”

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has systematically tried to dismantle the few tools available to maintain equity for students. It attempted to illegally delay regulations created to address racial disparities in the treatment of students who receive special education services. It also sought to roll back guidance established to disrupt biased school discipline practices. It pressured Texas Tech University’s school of medicine to adopt a policy eliminating the use of race as a factor in admissions and backed the plaintiffs in the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. Harvard University case seeking to eliminate the use of race in admissions. And most recently, the administration waged an attack on curriculum that aims to provide an accurate history of the United States.

All of these actions, and many others, show an increasing aversion to acknowledging