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The Reparations I Owe: An Exponential Growth Model of Privilege

By John T. McCrann — July 13, 2016 6 min read
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I’ve been planning on writing this piece for a few months. But as I sat down to actually write it this week, the violence which occurred in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas weighed on me as it must for you. Discussing the history of race, racism, privilege, and oppression in our country is never easy. Perhaps the events of last week (last month, last year, last century) highlight the reality that these discussions are challenging and that we urgently need them.

There are no quick fixes to the issues related to last week’s violence. There are policy changes that could and should be made (police reform and gun violence legislation); however, I don’t think that policies alone can bring about the change we need.

Anti-racist organizations (like Teaching Tolerance) have long advocated that we need discussion alongside legislation. Without person-to-person contact that works to heal bitter anger, fear, and misunderstanding we will wind up with more violence.

My hope is that the story below strikes you as an example of one way to engage in a discussion about privilege and oppression. I offer it here with gratitude to those teachers who helped me develop the task and students whose powerful ideas brought the task to life. With sadness about injustice past and present. With the commitment to work to end that injustice.


I am the White descendant of farmers from North Carolina.

My kin owned a farm in Granville County in the 1800’s. As a child, my family and I accompanied my

grandmother back to family reunions and Thanksgiving feasts in her home county. I was always struck by the closeness of these relatives, their sense of place, and the lengths to which they would go to show support and love for one another.

Yes, there are beautiful aspects of my family legacy, but that is not the whole story. Like the rest of the South, Granville County North Carolina is a place where African-Americans were brutally enslaved for more than a century then terrorized for another hundred plus years. (Read Granville native and historian Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name if you are interested in learning more about specifics of these institutions in Granville County.)

“Why are we talking about this?” a student asked me as I was explaining this part of my family history to my Algebra class this past spring. The treatment of African-Americans in a place like Granville County is shocking, sad, rage-inducing. I understood why perhaps she didn’t want to think about these historical facts.

The short answer to her question was that I bought a house.

Home purchasing gives one a reason to consider wealth/credit along with hours to listen to the radio while completing household chores. During this time, I happened to listen to this episode of Brian Lehrer’s public radio program entitled The Economics of Reparations. Economist and professor William Darity shared this fact (at around 20 minutes into the program) which bears repeating here (especially here on Edweek.org where we often consider the power of educational attainment to foster economic justice): “Blacks with a college degree have about $10,000 less in net-worth than Whites who never finished high school.”

The experience of thinking about the reparations movement as a White home-owner begged the question: what role did White Privilege play in helping me get this house?

I couldn’t answer this question on my own, so I put it to my students.

I gave them some basic information about my family history (there were 24 enslaved people on my great-great grandparents’ farm according to the 1850 slave schedule). Some historical data about birth rates (somewhere between 13 and 30 births per 1,000 people). Information about asset value increase over the last 150 years (an estate valued at $9,000 in 1860 would be worth around $31 million in 2011).

My students then played the role of the plaintiff’s attorney. They used exponential growth models to determine an amount of wealth stolen from African-Americans on my family’s farm as well as to assess damages for pain and suffering. They each developed tables, graphs, and a written argument to show an amount to be paid by the White descendants of my great-great grandparents to the Black descendants of the people they enslaved.

For me and my students, the experience of confronting this history and our relationship to it every day for a 3 week unit of study was intense but fruitful. Students did amazing work and their understanding of the math content grew as a result of the engagement that comes from thinking about this controversial topic.

In reading students’ final essays/reflections from the unit there were a few important ancillary benefits to teaching about exponential functions this way. I’ll close by sharing them and — as always — look forward to hearing from you about other things we could consider as we think about these ideas in future lessons.

Not slaves, enslaved people. I believe that language has power. I took time at the beginning of our discussion to emphasize a linguistic choice that we should make in the unit (prompted in part by a caller on the Brian Lehrer episode I linked above). Students and I noticed that using the term enslaved people instead of slave accomplished two important things. First, it emphasizes the humanity of the African-Americans who lived in Granville County and throughout the South. Second, it emphasizes the notion that enslavement was (and is) something done to people by other people.

It’s a lot of money. Every student calculated that I personally owe at least several hundred thousand dollars to the descendants of the enslaved people who lived on my great-great grandfather’s farm. The total amount owed by each descendant would be much greater sum owed by our family. We can certainly poke holes in their arguments and quantitative analysis (they are 9th graders after all), but we couldn’t really get around the fact that there was a great debt owed to the people who experienced the brutal institution of slavery in the South. The wealth generated for plantation owners with the labor of tens of millions of enslaved people alone is a vast sum. We also must acknowledge that these folks were due some damages for the pain and suffering inflicted upon them. There is no amount of money that could have actually compensated these people for the theft of their humanity. However, the act of thinking specifically about how we might try (in a similar way to the way teams of lawyers calculate damages in modern civil suits) helped us recognize the vastness of the injustice.

“I can use math to make an argument.” This sentence comes from the final paper of a student who struggled in my class this year. I had asked students to “Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others” throughout the year, so the fact that he was just having this “aha moment” during our final unit was a bit frustrating for me. Yet, as I thought about this sentence and the young man who wrote it, I realized that what he meant by “make an argument” in this paper really was different from what he experienced in units about energy transfer or parabolic motion. For him, “arguing” means advocating for people and justice. His realization, that quantitative analysis can inform and support our emotional responses related to what we think is fair, was a new idea. Wouldn’t our politics be better if we all came to that realization?


Photo 1 by Mary Conroy Almada of author leading student discussion

Photo 2 a page from the 1850 slave schedule accessed through http://www.raogk.org/census-records/slave-schedule/


I would be remiss here if I didn’t also link Ta-nehisi Coates’s June 2014 article “The Case for Reparations,” which is in large part responsible for bringing this discussion back into the mainstream and is well worth the read for those folks who missed it.

And here’s another useful piece by Imara Jones for those who want to read more about the case for reparations.


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