My generation, the Black children of the 1980s and 90s, grew up on the shoulders of the civil rights generation. They were our mothers, fathers, uncles, aunties, and grandparents. We shared the dream of integration that our parents had fought to make real for us, but education reform merged with crime reform to put targets on our backs.
Instead of living as the children of the dream, we were labeled “crack babies,” “superpredators,” and “thugs” by politicians, law enforcement, first ladies, and the media. And it didn’t stop with labels. Those characterizations were used to justify punishing us inside the walls of our own public schools.
When my friend Zakia was 11 years old, her teacher body-slammed her and put her in a chokehold. In Kia’s junior year, a school police officer grabbed her by the collar and knapsack, pulled her out of her classroom, and threw her against the hallway lockers.
When Rob stopped going to his high school classes because he feared the outcome of each standardized test, no school official called to ask if he was ever coming back. Sam estimates that he was suspended somewhere between 120 and 140 days from kindergarten to high school.
Sam and Rob did not have one Black male teacher during the entirety of their schooling. The only Black men they ever saw in school were janitors and, occasionally, sports coaches. Hearing these stories, there is no question that they were harmed in the very spaces Black people fought so hard to take part in.
But their stories are not unique. For millions of Black children in our nation’s public schools, suspensions, police brutality, neglect, zero-tolerance policies, a lack of Black teachers, and educational trauma make up the school day. This is not a secret. American educational reform was never designed with our interests in mind. Instead of creating better learning conditions for Black children, school reforms punish us for being Black.
Black students make up just 15 percent of K-12 public school students, yet they made up nearly 40 percent of students suspended out of school, according to the most recent data released by the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights. Similarly, Black children comprised only 18 percent of preschool students but 43 percent of out-of-school preschool suspensions.
School suspension is never a neutral punishment or an effective form of discipline for students of any race. Many of the children impacted are sent home without access to lunch or school supplies, let alone tutors to ensure they do not fall behind academically. By missing critical days of learning, children who are suspended become more likely to enter the criminal-justice system. What does “public education” even mean when the institutions that are supposed to educate Black children instead keep populating the prison-industrial complex?
Research shows that school resource officers are more likely to patrol the halls of schools filled with Black and brown faces than white ones, increasing the likelihood of students of color being suspended or arrested for the same behaviors that are considered typically adolescent in predominantly white schools.
How do we repair a system so central to the functioning of American democracy when its reform movement over the last 40 years is rooted in the ongoing harm of children of color? The efforts of politicians since the 1980s (including high-stakes standardized testing, No Child Left Behind, school closures, book and curriculum bans) have not served to improve education; they have actively harmed the most vulnerable of students.
How does this nation atone, repair, and begin to measure what is owed to us for what was taken?
To actually repair public education, with the aim of doing less harm and creating opportunities for all children to learn, I believe there must be reparations. Reparations serve two purposes: They acknowledge the scope and depth of the harm that has been done and they create the conditions for the current ongoing harm to cease and for making whole again those who have been harmed.
For my forthcoming book, Punished for Dreaming, I worked with a team of economists and policy experts to calculate the educational harm done to Black people of my generation, beyond the underfunding of education. They calculated this harm across six categories—inferior curriculum, police presence in schools, crumbling school buildings, excessive suspensions, earning losses from being pushed out of school, and earning losses from education reforms—to calculate the need for reparations totaling upward of $2 trillion dollars.
It is easier to think of harm as an individual experience, but when harm is done to a large number of people, it is hard to concretize. Reparations become a tool to help society understand the extent to which harm was incurred. They make real and tangible what a group has lost as a result of unequal access and treatment.
In the state of California, the largest examination of reparations since Reconstruction is currently underway. In 2021, the state legislature established a nine-member committee that has since identified five areas of harm: housing discrimination, mass incarceration, unjust property seizures, devaluation of Black businesses, and health.
Education itself is not a category although the committee has recommended additional school funding to repair the harm of unequal education. But before a Black person is denied a home loan, has their business devalued, or is incarcerated, they are subjected to a harmful public education system that discriminates against them, denying them access and opportunities because of their race.
In a culture that uses money to indicate value, reparations can create the conditions necessary to understand the scope of the harm that has been done, initiate real strategies for creating just policies, end ongoing harm, and, most importantly, address accountability for past harm. Every day that we allow the government to use the term “reform” for policies whose function is to perpetuate racial harm, we risk the lives and futures of our children. Reparations constitute both symbolic and material repair on the long path to racial justice in America. A nation committed to justice should be committed to reparations.
A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2023 edition of Education Week as American Education Hurt Black Students. We Deserve Reparations