Reparations Anxiety

Like so many painful issues of race and class, the argument over slavery reparations hovers just beneath the surface of our everyday political consciousness, always ready to burst forth. Support for reparations wasn't always seen as radical. Back in the 19th century, reparations were understood as reasonable public policy. After all, how could former slaves, who had been denied basic rights and education, integrate into the free economy and society without some help? Large-scale reparations were never granted, but the idea has never really disappeared from American culture.

Today the issue has become a sort of litmus test for black politicians, a way of determining if they are too radical for the white electorate. Last July during the CNN/YouTube Democratic debate, Barack Obama was asked if African Americans would ever receive slavery reparations. Clearly prepared to answer this exact question, Obama responded, "I think the reparations we need right here in South Carolina is investment, for example, in our schools." The crowd applauded.

Given that Obama needed to appeal to the nearly two-thirds of African Americans who support reparations, as well as the 96 percent of white Americans who oppose them, it was a skillful pivot. But Obama isn't the only one to conceive of support for struggling public schools as a form of slavery reparations. Last spring, my alma mater, Brown University, announced that after a three-year study of its founding family's participation in the 18th-century and 19th-century slave trade, it would atone by raising a $10 million endowment for the local Providence, Rhode Island, public school district, one of the most troubled in the country. Some reparations advocates criticized the plan, saying it doesn't do enough to help African American descendents of slaves. Although almost 90 percent of Providence public school students are nonwhite, just 22 percent are black.

Nevertheless, the failure of America's urban public schools certainly should be understood as a legacy of discrimination. Three-quarters of children in the Providence schools live in poverty. Rhode Island ranks among the top three states dependent on municipal property taxes to fund education, a regressive system that disadvantages city schools. The Brown endowment is expected to eventually yield an annual payout of $500,000. But the uncomfortable truth is that while increased funding for urban districts is crucial, it isn't enough. To truly repair the educational legacy of slavery, we must integrate our public school system.

Nationwide, two-thirds of black children attend schools with few or no white students. These days, caring about school integration is seen as letting the political perfect be the enemy of the policy good. But Providence -- like many other cities across the nation -- is geographically contiguous with affluent suburbs that boast of nearly all-white public schools. It isn't accidental that the funding structure of our education system re-creates disparities in housing. And it needn't be so.

Civil-rights advocates in Hartford, Connecticut, have been fighting for decades to regionalize their county's highly segregated public schools. After they won a crucial state Supreme Court case in 1996, a program of voluntary transfers was set up between inner-city Hartford and its suburbs. A lottery system gave some suburban kids slots in high-performing urban magnet schools, while some city kids were bused to suburban schools. Initial results were positive. But only a tiny fraction of Hartford's poor, black, and Hispanic children have benefited. This past fall, the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund returned to court to argue for expanding the oversubscribed, underfunded program.

Hartford has the potential to become a national model. No Child Left Behind allows students from failing schools to transfer within their district, but with so many families living in cities where almost every school is low-performing, it's no surprise that few take advantage of the option. NCLB does nothing to equalize state funding between urban and suburban schools, or to encourage districting that brings children together across lines of race and class.

Congress was supposed to reform the troubled NCLB last year, but amid controversy over teacher merit pay and high-stakes testing, Democrats pushed the final debate into 2008. The extra time gives Congress and the presidential candidates an opportunity to grapple with an important, yet mostly unspoken truth: Segregated schools weren't good enough during Jim Crow, and segregated schools aren't good enough today. That's a simple message sorely missing from our national education debate. Until we learn it, reparations through education reform will be nothing but a talking point.

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