The following post originally appears on the Washington Post under the title, “No, college isn’t the answer. Reparations are.” 

By: Tressie McMillan Cottom

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a thing at The Atlantic making the case for reparations.

For some, reparations to African Americans for enslavement and state-sanctioned apartheid (more benignly known as “Jim Crow”) is a shocking case to make. I am a sociologist whose training has been, in part, with economists like Sandy Darity at Duke University and Darrick Hamilton at The New School. For Darity, Hamilton, and many other serious scholars of race, history, and inequality, the matter of reparations is anything but novel or shocking. Neither is it hyperbolic. There are real programs, with feasibility studies and implementation suggestions, and they move far beyond Coates’ call for a spiritual reckoning of the body politic. If you have never heard of them, that is likely by design. Few powerful persons or institutions have ever been willing to seriously put a reparations program before the American people.

But I wager that you have heard a lot about how education and opportunity can be, through hard work and moral fortitude, the path to greater equality for African Americans. In many ways, when the formerly enslaved asked first for a national program to redress the forced, free labor that made the United States the nation we know it to be, they were given schooling instead of redress; opportunity instead of compensation. It is an attitude that persists in our policy and our cultural lexicon. When the demand is for justice, we are most likely to respond with an appeal, instead, to fairness. And in no institution is that more clearly evident than education. There’s just one problem: It’s not good enough.

When I teach my inequality course to undergraduates, I spend a lot of time on periods of wealth creation in U.S. history and how fundamental enslaved labor was to its distribution. Even my econ majors tend to walk away saying there’s really no redress for inequality that does not begin and end with wealth redistribution. The issue is almost never if reparations is a solution but only if it’s a solution white folks can live with. So, there’s that.

I like Coates’ addendum on his blog. He gives some love to the academics and teachers who slog through survey courses that likely end with many of the conclusions drawn by my students: if we do not use power to redistribute capital there is no racial justice or equality. I like it when teachers get some love.

I like it because I identify as a teacher and also because I’m a bit of an education zealot. I’ve talked about how fundamental public libraries and teachers and those annual scholastic book ordering drives were to my childhood. Because education seems to have worked out fairly well for me and because I am not shy about being a fan of librarians on social media, people are often surprised by my explicit political position that education is not and should not be a social policy solution to inequality. I do not think that higher education “access” is that laudable of a goal. For almost twenty years now there has been a hyper-focus on increasing college “access.” In that time we have produced thousands of University of Phoenixes and exactly zero Harvards. Access is not a panacea.

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