By Tressie McMillan Cottom May 29 at 3:13 PM Follow @tressiemcphd
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a sociologist and writer. She can be found at www.tressiemc.com
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.
I am mostly uninterested in political rhetoric about education being the “new” civil rights movement. The old civil rights movement waged a battle for citizenship through school legislation because that was the nearest available political tool. The landmark civil rights case, Brown versus the Board of Education, was initially conceived as a means for justice, not its end. I also think that narrowly focusing on college completion is not a good thing. The job market is volatile for African Americans in the best of times and these are not the best of times. During difficult economic cycles, black workers and students should benefit from the flexibility of moving in and out of college as their life circumstances allow. Without that flexibility, every educational moment becomes a zero sum decision: “If I leave school this semester to take that job or care for a family member, I probably will never be able to return.” We’re poorer as individuals and groups when people least likely to get a call back because of a “black” name or negative credit check or criminal conviction have to make a decision to take a job or opt out of college forever. In short, I’m a heretic about almost every fundamental populist education belief we’ve got.
As the world was waiting for Coates’ case for reparations, Janelle Jones and John Schmitt at the Center for Economic Policy Research were releasing a policy paper on black college graduates and the labor market. In “A College Degree is No Guarantee”, Jones and Schmitt examine the labor market conditions for black college degree holders pre and post Great Recession.
Their findings are only a surprise to those who ain’t living it.
Jones and Schmitt essentially put forth a forensic accounting of every knee-jerk ideological inequality policy prescription that too often asks of education what education simply cannot do.
When you start talking about poverty and race, inevitably most folks fall back on the usual tropes: blacks should care more about school, go to college, increase their graduation rates, choose the right majors.
Jones and Schmitt’s report looks at black folks who have done exactly that, all of it. They cared enough about school to graduate, go to college, complete a four-year degree and stay in step with their non-black age cohort members (they focus on graduates ages 22-27). A few key findings:
- In 2013 (the most recent full year of data available), 12.4 percent of black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed. For all college graduates in the same age range, the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent.
- Between 2007 (immediately before the Great Recession) and 2013, the unemployment rate for black recent college graduates nearly tripled (up 7.8 percentage points from 4.6 percent in 2007).
- In 2013, more than half (55.9 percent) of employed black recent college graduates were “underemployed” –defined as working in an occupation that typically does not require a four-year college degree. Even before the Great Recession, almost half of black recent graduates were underemployed (45.0 percent in 2007).
- While some college graduates are finding financial success in the labor market in jobs that don’t typically require a college degree, a growing share have had no such luck. Instead, they are working in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree and don’t pay more than $25,000; this is especially true for young black graduates.
- Black recent college graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors have fared somewhat better, but still suffer from high unemployment and underemployment rates. For example, for the years 2010 to 2012, among black recent graduates with degrees in engineering, the average unemployment rate was 10 percent and the underemployment rate was 32 percent.
No matter what black college grads do, as a group they are the most sensitive to every negative macro labor market trend. (The report has comparative data.) They are more likely to be unemployed, underemployed, and hold low quality jobs even when they have STEM degrees. I point out that last bit because apparently STEM will save us all or something.
How can I revere education as I do and refuse to accept it as the gospel that will save us from persistent, intractable inequality?Actually, it is precisely because I revere education—formal and informal—that I refuse to sell it as a cure for all that ails us.Degrees cannot fix the cumulative effect of structural racism. In fact, over five decades of social science research shows that education reproduces inequality. At every level of schooling, classrooms, schools, and districts reward wealth and privilege. That does not end at college admissions, which is when all that cumulative disadvantage may be its most acute. Going to college not only requires know how that changes from institution to institution and year to year, but it also requires capital. There’s the money to take standardized tests and mail applications and make tuition deposits. But there’s also the money that levels differences in individual ability. An unimpressive wealthy student can pay for test prep, admissions coaches, and campus visits that increases one’s shot at going to the most selective college possible. If education reinforces the salience of money to opportunity, it is money and only money that can make educational “opportunity” a vehicle for justice.
Reparations can do what education cannot do.
When we allow education to be sold as a fix for wealth inequality, we set a public good up to fail and black folks who do everything “right” to take the blame when it goes “wrong.”
Coates has a written a thing about reparations. Ostensibly, it is about the pattern of systematic extraction of black labor, wealth and income to the benefit of institutions that operate to their exclusion. It is a story with a history but one that is not a relic of history. Conservatives may be guilty of rejecting outright their basic faith in fair pay for labor when the issue is labor done by brown people. But white liberals are just as disingenuous when they rhetorically move reparations back in time as redress for slavery when there are countless modern cases of state-sanctioned racist oppression to make the case for reparations.
Like housing and banking, education is a modern debate that sounds like it a 19th century one. Reparations are about slavery but also about Jim Crow and white violence’s effect on intellectual property and islands of segregated want in a land of plenty. There remains an entire generation of African Americans alive and well who were legally consigned to segregated schools, neighborhoods, and occupations. The black college graduates with weaker starting positions in the labor market are the children and grandchildren of that generation. No matter how much we might believe in the great gospel of education, it is an opportunity vehicle that works best when coupled with justice and not confused for justice.