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A School District Could Offer Reparations to Black Citizens. How It Might Look

One of the first school districts to pursue reparations for Black Americans is now pondering a proposal to offer cash payments to descendants of enslaved people.

The concept of reparations has existed for centuries, but in recent years has moved closer to mainstream politics with the help of movements like the nationwide groundswell of protests that followed the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. Several states and cities—including, last week, Chicago—have launched efforts to study cash payments or other methods to address the generational harms of American slavery and racial inequality.

A small sliver of the K-12 world, including a handful of students serving on citywide reparations commissions, has grappled with similar questions. Most notably, the Berkeley school district in California last April convened a 15-member reparations task force that included school staff, students, parents, and community members.

The goal was to examine whether and how the school district itself could contribute to repairing the ongoing harms inflicted on the area’s Black residents as a result of slavery and Jim Crow-era segregation.

“We’re not righting the wrongs. We won’t really be able to do that,” said Adena Ishii, a longtime Berkeley resident who served as one of the three co-chairs for the district’s reparations task force. “We’re trying to take steps towards repairing what happened.”

The task force concluded its work this month with a 54-page report that included results from a survey of thousands of residents. School board members praised the report and affirmed their commitment to considering the recommendations in the coming months, the San Jose Mercury News reported.

Black students in Berkeley have consistently lagged behind white students on test scores, according to the report. Respondents to the survey detailed experiences of racism and prejudice they’ve encountered in schools in the last few years. And just last month, more than 100 students gathered in front of Berkeley High School to protest racism they’ve experienced on their campus and to urge the hiring of more Black teachers.

The report includes three recommendations for next steps:

  • A detailed “harm report” with facts and figures documenting the impacts of slavery on the school district and its students
  • A more robust set of curriculum materials dedicated to the topic of slavery, both across the country and specifically in California and the Berkeley district
  • A program of financial payments to residents whose ancestors were enslaved

Cash payments would be uncharted and tricky territory for schools

The last item may prove the trickiest to pull off. A school district offering reparations payments raises unprecedented legal and logistical questions.

“We wanted to make sure that we weren’t taking funding from the general fund, which would disadvantage potentially other children,” said Ishii, who recently launched a campaign for mayor of Berkeley. “Even really early on we had conversations about that not being an option.”

Selling school district property also isn’t an option; it’s illegal for schools to use revenue from property sales for education spending in California.

Instead, the report offers three alternative approaches:

  • Soliciting donations from philanthropists and corporations, which would be transmitted to eligible recipients through a local nonprofit
  • Filing a lawsuit against private companies and institutions whose efforts and investments contributed to racial disparities in the district so affected residents could benefit from potential damages
  • Proposing a new tax on residents that would go toward cash payments. The program would be designed to “minimize the impact on Descendant taxpayers” so that the tax revenue primarily benefits them.

Casual observers tend to assume that the term “reparations” is synonymous with cash payments, but that’s not always the case. In Providence, R.I., for instance, a report on reparations recommended expanding mental health services for Black students in K-12 schools. San Francisco’s reparations commission recommended the formation of a new, Afrocentric public K-12 school, modeled after the I Promise School supported by the LeBron James Foundation in Akron, Ohio.

But among the list of proposed approaches to reparations in Berkeley schools, the one that drew the most support from more than 2,200 surveyed community members was cash payments, with 85 percent in favor. Respondents favored requiring that recipients of the funds use them for “educational purposes,” rather than for spending on anything.

The Berkeley school district, in a city widely known for its progressive policies, would follow in the footsteps of the city of Evanston, Ill., which has so far offered $3 million in cash payments to residents descended from slavery to spend on housing.

That program has faced its fair share of obstacles. A conservative group is suing to overturn the program on the grounds that it violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Similarly, Republican lawmakers in Tennessee recently tried to pass a law that would prohibit local governments from exploring reparations—though the bill failed to get enough support.

The issue of reparations tends to be emotionally charged regardless of one’s opinion. Most participants in the Berkeley commission are descendants of slaves. Ishii’s grandparents were Japanese prisoners of the U.S. government during World War II, and later received reparations from the federal government, during the Reagan administration, to address the harm they endured.

“I think it’s very important that you take time in the beginning to build trust and build relationships between people,” Ishii said. “This is a very sensitive and intense topic.”

So far, the movement for reparations hasn’t reached a large number of K-12 schools. The Loudoun County school district in Virginia has also pursued a study of the possible need for reparations. In addition, the state of Virginia recently expanded a program offering scholarship funds to Black residents who were denied access to education when K-12 schools shut down in the early 1960s to protest mandatory desegregation. The program now serves descendants of those citizens, and their relatives.

Ishii believes the key to the Berkeley district’s success in pursuing reparations so far has been its robust engagement with the community. The group invited area residents to several events featuring scholarly experts on race and reparations.

“This is part of an effort that is going to take some time,” Ishii said. “We have to have patience and persistence in pursuing this work.”

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