Summary: Ta-Nehisi Coates calls in the recent Atlantic for reparative dialogue, and even financial recompense for the long American history of slavery and Jim Crow. An educational superfund that supports the educational turnaround of poor and at risk kids of all races may serve as a de facto reparation in the absence of the kind of conversation Coates has in mind.
I met Robert in an after school credit recovery program where I monitored on line course work designed to make up for failed classes. I’d known his brother a few years before. The brother had not graduated, though was close to doing so. I would hear differing accounts of the brother for a couple of years after he left school, one that had him having finished his diploma, others having him off the deep end into substance abuse.
Robert is memorable to me because of an interaction toward the end of the credit recovery semester. The on line class required a research paper as a culmination, which I accommodated to mean a paper on something of deep interest to the student. In the context, a fully documented and footnoted research paper was unrealistic for many of the students. I figured some passionate inquiry and a report on it was worth the flame I hoped would ignite.
Maybe later that flame would flicker into motivation to upgrade his skills and pursue something more substantial – such as a job training program.
Robert chose to write about hip hop culture. With some structuring and encouragement, he identified source material, organized some of his own thoughts, and put together a paper that was frankly of poor quality and difficult to understand. But he clearly had interest, and there were ideas in the work that had merit, and from which I learned – it was just that their extraction was difficult. Simply put, he couldn’t put his thoughts into coherent sentence and paragraph structure.
We worked at it together, using his handwritten paper as a template to make it more acceptable. I remember his looking at me with what I took as bewilderment, as though “does this guy really think I can learn this????…..” For the record, I did finally accept his paper for completion of the course, more for what I hoped he had learned than for the quality of the product.
I thought of Robert, as well as other African-American students I have known, as I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent article in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.” After a tortured account of the history of slavery and Jim Crow in this country on the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and its haunting in contemporary American culture, Coates initially seems to aim at financial recompense, and teeters there with a brief suggestion of how much such a sum may likely be, compounded over the literally hundreds of years since African slaves were first transported to North America.
Likely also he intends to bring white American up short in its self-congratulations on such a fiftieth anniversary, which marks some progress, but is objectively only a way station. Robert, for example, is as yet still a young African-American man, but prospects for him in his individual and contemporary life are profoundly hampered by the complex legacy handed down to him by American history.
Then finally that is Coates’ point. The financial recompense is not the issue, but a full airing, a full truth commission, of the slave and Jim Crow past, in order to bring the ghost into the light, and integrate our history in such a way that we can move forward as a culture with less of an unacknowledged conversation lurking in the closet, contaminating much national discourse, large and small.
But not so fast with leaving the financial recompense behind. My student Robert is either a direct descendant of slaves, or he has been molded by that history in the act of breathing the air around him. African American families were torn apart, and torn apart repeatedly, by the action of slave owners and traders, and then hounded by Jim Crow. This past is still alive among us in the person of our many African American kids who struggle in school, and so face uphill prospects in the increasingly global race for meaningful work and a decent standard of living.
We know now a fair amount about how reparative funds might be used to positive effect with youth, whether labeled as recompense or camouflaged in some more politically palatable package. Robert, I can tell you, may well have responded to an extended and an earlier version of the brief attention I gave him around that one paper one time. Each city today can tell stories of mentor programs that have had demonstrated impact on the school career of student beneficiaries. Particularly on the elementary level, teachers with fewer students are able to surround at risk kids with the same kind of healthful attention. The corporate world has gotten into the act; where a company adopts a school and embeds its energies there, some good things have happened.
In short, the strategic application of supplementary monies, largely translated into intervention by human relationship, can shift the balance in the effort to improve the academics of poor kids of all races.
America remains unenlightened by comparison with our European counterparts. We are one of the few developed nations in the world that does not fund poor students at a higher rate than affluent students, who already have been inducted into the necessaries of school and the economic world by their parents and their communities.
I fear we cannot wait upon the true reparative conversation Coates advocates; reparations, let’s face it, is not a card in the contemporary deck. Too many generations will have passed and suffered before the culture matures enough to entertain such a fraught discussion.
An educational superfund might nominally acknowledge the due of racial justice, but would take as its target all low income youth and be a kind of de facto reparation for students such as Robert.
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