Equity & Diversity

Schools Are Confronting Centuries of Racial Injustice. Will They Offer Reparations?

By Mark Lieberman — April 11, 2023 11 min read
Pedestrians walk past a sign in Evanston, Ill., on April 30, 2021. The Chicago suburb is preparing to pay reparations in the form of housing grants to Black residents who experienced housing discrimination. The city is being hailed as the first to do so, and is being held up as a model in its approach for other cities looking to do the same.
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Cainan Townsend’s father started 1st grade at 11 years old, and graduated from high school at 22.

This wasn’t by choice. The schools that served Black students in Farmville, Va., where Townsend’s family has lived for generations, shut down between 1959 and 1964. They were engaging in what’s now known as Massive Resistance, protesting the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision that mandated the end of racially segregated public schools nationwide.

Four decades later, in the early 2000s, the state of Virginia opened a $2 million scholarship fund for Townsend and his fellow Prince Edward County classmates to pay for new academic pursuits. Last month, the state extended the program’s eligibility to anyone in the state who lost access to school during Massive Resistance, and to include descendants of those affected.

Townsend’s father, who’s still alive and turned 70 last month, was always tough on his son when it came to maintaining good grades and dealing with bullies. Townsend later realized that was because his father was acutely aware of how easy it would be to lose the opportunity to attend school at all.

“We have people who equate education with turmoil, education with pain, education with strife, and they prefer to stay away from it,” said Townsend, 29. “This program is going to try to rectify some of that.”

He intends to apply for scholarship funds to pay for a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree.

Virginia’s new education-focused effort to make up for what Black Americans lost over generations of disenfranchisement and discrimination is one of several reparations efforts taking shape across the country.

California’s Berkeley Unified school district in last month became one of the first school districts in the country to commit to studying its role in providing reparations for descendants of Black people who were enslaved.

Back in Virginia, the local government in Loudoun County is pondering how to make amends with Black residents who suffered when the district refused to desegregate its schools following the Brown v. Board decision.

Several broader efforts at the state and local levels are taking K-12 education into account as well.

California’s reparations commission last June released a report that includes a slew of recommendations for addressing the historical roots of racial disparities, from dedicated education funding for Black students to free undergraduate education for Black high school graduates. A similar report out of Providence, R.I., highlighted the low academic achievement of the city’s majority-Black school district and urged hiring more mental health counselors in schools.

And in Boston, two public high school students are among a group of 10 people tasked with studying the need for reparations for its Black residents. St. Louis is currently looking for a teenager to join a reparations committee as well.

“They are many, many generations removed from legalized slavery, but they are still living in our communities and experiencing the impact,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston branch. Including teenagers on the committee “to shape what the research might be was really important.”

These efforts are far from settled. Many of the plans to study reparations could fizzle before they yield tangible results. Core questions around how much is owed, and by whom, remain unanswered. A federal bill that would establish a nationwide reparations commission has stalled in Congress for decades, even after the U.S. House hosted its first public hearing on the subject in 2021. And some proponents of reparations remain wary of using that term for fear of alienating critics.

Still, efforts to consider reparations have multiplied in the last few years, spurred by a variety of factors including the groundswell of protests in 2020 that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Popular television shows like “Watchmen” and “Atlanta” have devoted episodes to exploring the future of America if Black Americans receive reparations. And in two recent reports, the United Nations has urged the United States to move forward with studying reparations.

Preston Green, a professor of educational leadership and law at the University of Connecticut, sees the fight for reparations as a long-term effort to shine a light on persistent racial disparities.

In 2021, he and two fellow education scholars, Bruce Baker and Joseph Oluwole, published a playbook for how reparations around K-12 schooling could work. The first step, they argue, would be to undo current school funding policies that exacerbate racial disparities, including state aid that doesn’t sufficiently compensate for low property tax revenue in historically under-resourced Black communities, and funding formulas that fail to target additional aid to students who would most benefit from it.

Only then, the authors argue, could policies like property tax rebates for Black homeowners begin to blossom.

“When we deal with issues of race, this country has a very difficult time with it,” Green said. “I think that’s why it’s taking its time to really percolate.”

Why schools matter in the fight for reparations

Some reparations efforts have zeroed in on the generational effects of unequal access to education—stretching from centuries of enslavement to the burning of Black schools erected during the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction, from states’ steadfast refusal of desegregation orders to the present-day funding challenges for schools disproportionately attended by students of color.

The push to address injustices Black Americans have faced in Loudoun County schools began in 2020. That year, Juli Briskman, who represents the Algonkian district on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, was tasked with contributing to a county apology on behalf of the school system for failing its Black residents.

“I said from the dais that night, words are good, intention is important, thoughts are important, but what are we actually doing to repair the harm?” Briskman said.

Among the infractions cited in the apology: The county forced Black residents who had raised $4,000 to purchase land for a high school to sell the parcel to the county for just $1, robbing them of ownership of the Douglass School, which grew out of Black parents’ concerns that their children weren’t receiving an adequate high school education. The district also refused to desegregate until nearly a decade after the Supreme Court ruling ordering the move.

Briskman couldn’t get these tragedies out of her head. They reminded her of when she, an Ohio native, moved to Virginia and was shocked to find that residents celebrated “Lee-Jackson-King Day,” honoring two Confederate generals alongside a modern civil rights icon, and learned in school that the U.S. Civil War was primarily an act of northern aggression.

She’s since helped develop a proposal to extensively study the long-term effects of discrimination in the county’s schools, and to solicit a broad swath of community feedback on how to meaningfully compensate for those harms. The district has invested $250,000 in a partnership with University of Virginia researchers to pull together and analyze primary sources that illuminate racial disparities in the county’s schools.

Some residents have asked Briskman why the county wouldn’t just invest $250,000 in scholarships for Black residents. But Briskman wants the community to steer the effort.

“I think it would be really hard to just do a flat-out cash outlay, although I’m not opposed to it,” Briskman said. “We’re really looking at, what does the community say they want? They might want a school to be refurbished, they might want scholarships, they might want a trail dedication where kids had to walk to school because they didn’t have transportation.”

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Advocates are confronting and challenging false assumptions

The notion that cash is the only acceptable currency for reparations is one of several misconceptions that have dogged the movement for decades.

In Boston, for instance, many reparations critics have argued they’re not necessary because the city is in the North and thus didn’t have slaves, Sullivan said.

But that’s not true. Phyllis Wheatley, who became among the first widely known African American poets, was enslaved by a Boston businessman. Recent research at Harvard University illuminated the extent to which Boston’s economic fortunes were shaped by slavery in the early 1700s.

“The system itself was not just about those who were enslaved on plantations in Louisiana,” Sullivan said.

Reparations also aren’t a new concept, contrary to what some naysayers might argue.

Allen Davis, a New Hampshire-based scholar and activist, worked with local librarians and University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers to assemble a timeline of dozens of reparations efforts in the United States. The first notch on the timeline is from 1783, the year the Revolutionary War ended, when Belinda Royall secured a pension from Massachusetts after being enslaved for half a century.

The largest reparations effort in American history came in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan approved $1.2 billion in cash payments—$20,000 per person—for 60,000 Japanese Americans who were sequestered in internment camps during World War II.

Words are good, intention is important, thoughts are important, but what are we actually doing to repair the harm?

Adena Ishii, a University of California Berkeley graduate who is among the advocates pushing the Berkeley school district to pursue reparations, said she came to learn as she grew up that her parents were among the recipients of those funds, and that her aunt played a key role in exposing to the public that the U.S. government knew all along that Japanese Americans posed no threat.

As a result, Ishii feels a powerful urge to support other groups in their fight to address harms that have gone unrepaired.

“It’s so important that folks follow the lead of African Americans in this effort, but that everyone feels like they can get involved and support this,” Ishii said. “I’m Asian American and I think it’s really important to stand in solidarity with groups as they’re working on these efforts.”

Perhaps the biggest myth reparations proponents have to challenge is the notion that the harms they’re addressing are in the distant past.

Many who personally witnessed forced segregation in schools and elsewhere are still alive. The wealth gap between Black and white Americans has widened in the last 15 years, and majority-white school districts receive significantly more funding per student than districts where most students are not white. Republican-championed state laws passed across the country have placed implicit and explicit limits on how teachers and textbook publishers can address racism and Black history. Mississippi still celebrates Confederate Heritage Month.

In Farmville, Va., Townsend confronts the painful history of his family’s plight every day. As curator of the Robert Russa Moton Museum, he walks visitors through 1950s-era protests over dismal conditions in school buildings for Black students, and the subsequent fallout from the half-decade period of school closure.

“It’s easy to think by looking at these pictures that you’re talking 100, 200 years,” Townsend said. “Anybody who meets me is only one degree removed from the school closings.”

Many challenges lie ahead

Deciding to pursue reparations is a big step. But even trickier ones lie ahead.

School districts in Berkeley and Loudoun County have virtually no precedents to follow as they explore what reparations could look like.

Laura Babbit, president of the Berkeley school board, believes the majority-white district is uniquely poised to lead by example. It was among the first large school districts to voluntarily implement a busing program that brought Black students to predominantly white schools and vice versa. The district boasts one of the nation’s only K-12 departments devoted to African American history.

Still, it will have to maintain momentum to avoid following the fate of a comparable movement in neighboring Oakland Unified. A controversial plan to close several majority-Black schools in the district derailed advocates’ hopes for a broader focus on reparations for Black students—though the closure plan was later reversed.

The Virginia scholarship program has served nearly 90 recipients, but it’s lain dormant without new funding since it was established in 2004. State Del. Kaye Kory, a Democrat, stumbled across the fund a couple of years ago and decided to renew a push for broadening eligibility to the entire state, and to descendants of Black people affected by the massive resistance phenomenon.

“We actually made it a law to deny education to Black people,” Kory said. “The least we can do is begin to offer some assistance in boosting up their academic achievement now.”

The program currently has roughly $1 million left. But with tuition costs at an all-time high, that’s only enough to cover degree programs for a handful of people. The state will either have to devote a new source of state funds or solicit private donations, Kory said.

Ken Woodley, the journalist and Prince Edward County native who conceived the program in the early 2000s, recently applied through U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine’s office for $10 million in grants from Congress to replenish the scholarship fund.

“If Mom and Dad through no fault of their own can’t read or write, you are at a distinct disadvantage from your classmates whose parents were able to fulfill their educational destiny, and therefore take an active part in their child’s life, in their homework, read to them from day one, be engaged with the school system,” Woodley said.

It remains to be seen how widespread the reparations movement will become in K-12 schools specifically. Most people interviewed for this article said they hadn’t been contacted by people elsewhere in the country who want to replicate their efforts.

But the abundance of ongoing efforts suggests the project won’t disappear anytime soon. In Berkeley, Babitt believes the crucial question of reparations is not if, or even when, but how.

“If people would just believe we can, and work with that lens, I guarantee that we make this happen,” Babitt said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 26, 2023 edition of Education Week as Schools Are Confronting Centuries of Racial Injustice. Will They Offer Reparations?

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