What We Need in a Reparations Policy, Resources not Rhetoric

If Black folks in Oakland had a nickel for every equity study, report or commission.  We could all afford to live here.  But despite all the talk we hear, there is very little concrete action, and even less actual equity.  The speechifiers show up at a press conference and declare victory, while Black folks line the streets in tents, and not a penny reaches them.

If we are really going to talk reparations, we need to move beyond performance politics and toward practical benefits for the Black community.  I have a few criteria for any policy, and before you get it twisted, you should too.  The tangible result should be actual redistribution of resources, opportunities, and changing the material condition of Black folks, with the ultimate goal of greater self-determination.  We will look at this with the recent OUSD, “Black Student Reparations” policy in mind.

What we need in a policy

Any real policy has to be (1) legal (2) practical/funded (3) universal for Black folks (4) acknowledging and respectful of our adjacent communities and (5) be under community control.  If it doesn’t, it will probably be just more empty talk, with a new study, and some unfunded recommendations to gather dust on the pile of previous reports.  Meanwhile not a single Black child actually benefits, and the energy to change the set up is sapped.

The Legality of “Reparations” as written

California has some messed up policies, Prop 209, is chief among them, deceptively named the California Civil Rights Initiative, it bans the use of race in giving benefits in public programs.  You can use race if you win a lawsuit and can tie the harm to the remedy.  But widespread use of race is outlawed.  So, any policy that outright targets race, like the unamended OUSD policy, is blatantly illegal and dead in its tracks. 

Here is one blatantly unconstitutional line in the policy,

“that all OUSD Black students, regardless of socio-economic status, are the highest priority applicant for the approval, assignment, and distribution of Chromebooks and functional hot spots”

So, a rich Black kid in OUSD would get priority over a low-income Black charter or homeschooler.  And a Black child on the street out of school, never gets a chance to get online, through Oakland Undivided.  Not to mention adjacent communities, like our Native family, who also should get a spot in line.  That policy defies the law and belies common sense.

Before any policy is presented it needs a real legal vetting.  Otherwise again, it’s just theatre. 

There are practical and legal solutions

That said, maybe OUSD and the City would actually admit liability in a legal way and clear the way potentially for more targeted solutions that could explicitly be allocated to Black folks to redress a legally established harm.  Or the legal case could be pursued (it will take years) but still, if you want racially targeted reparations, there are legal ways to get there.  But passing a policy that will get struck down the first time it sees a judge is not a viable option.   Or at least it wont actually help any Black kids.

Short of that there are still plenty of things we can do.

We can target benefits through proxies for race.  Black folks tend to live in some neighborhoods, go to some schools, and use some services.  We could consciously over invest in those institutions, and create priorities for those categories.

We could allocate additional funding, or preferential treatment to “ the lowest performing subgroup(s).”   These schools could get extra funding, these families could be prioritized in signup for schools, digital inclusion, preschools, mental health services, special needs screenings or any other manner of public service. 

And what if we permanently just changed the school funding formula, extra funding goes to schools with higher proportions of the lowest performing subgroup(s), above and beyond the current LCFF funding.  Or their parents get funding for summer school, enrichment, literacy support etc.  There are ways we can shift resources, and shift who the government prioritizes.  That has always been the case, restrictive and racist government policies have gotten us here, and we can change the way that folks line up for benefits. The last can be first, and the first last, to paraphrase Matthew.

But as it is, we can’t explicitly use race as the category, no matter how illogical that seems.

Funding for Reparations

If you give me a policy without funding or the establishment of some enforceable right, you aren’t giving me much of a policy.  Any reparations policy needs to have money.  You remember the 40 acres and a mule thing.  It was resources, resources to support self- determination.  There will be hundreds of millions of dollars of one-time funding coming to Oakland in the COVID relief bill.  How will that get spent, where will the free broadband be constructed, how about housing upgrades, summer enrichment, or even the contractors paid out of the funding. 

Like I showed in the school funding formula, we can also just change the formulas we use to allocate resources, or we could think about raising money specifically for this effort, like a parcel tax. 

The Black community has been historically disinvested in.  Our neighborhoods and institutions have been underfunded.  And our families have not had the same opportunity to accumulate wealth.  These and other things can be addressed by our current institutions.  Any reparations plan needs real money behind it, and ideally changes fundamentally the way the pie is allocated going forward or the order folks stand in line to get their piece.

Reparations for all Black families

Reparations should benefit every Black family that needs them, while the current OUSD policy would apply to only around half of Black families.   If the funding formula should change for some schools it should change for all schools.  Charters should be held accountable for how they address equity, and this could be one way to demonstrate that.  Things like universal health screening, or pre natal care, and screenings for dyslexia, should be available no matter where your child goes to school or whether they are in school at all.

Ultimately, OUSD should not be the one to hold and spend the imaginary funding.  But more on that later.  The broader point is that we need a universal policy for every child, from the cradle, or before, onward.  Not one that shifts, based one when and where they go to school or don’t.

Community Control of funds is essential

How are you going to give the fox that has been raiding the henhouse from time immemorial, some extra money to now do reparative work with the hens.  Seriously, the very targeted programs that Black folks have fought for in OUSD are being dismantled right now.  And we expect OUSD to fix the problem that is a primary perpetrator of.  That seems foolish.  I would say the same thing if you said give money to the charters to fix themselves.

Ultimately, if there is a real fund, it should go to a community-controlled foundation.  First, they aren’t bound by the same rules that public bodies are when it comes to Prop 209.  And secondly, you have been flim-flammed if you are going to give it to some hungry foxes and expect any actual results.

We need to be in dialogue with adjacent communities

Black reparations should not depend on any other community’s approval.  However, for solutions to last, they will need to be built in partnership.  Lest we find ourselves squabbling with folks that should be our allies, while nothing structurally changes.  This had already begun, with some of the initial detractors and questioners of the legality of the original policy being other communities of color.

Morally, legally and every other way right or not, Black folks will not be able to build lasting answers, or even short term ones, alone.  We are in a unique position with unique historical burdens.  But others are too, and, no, it may not be the same.  But we need to better have that conversation.  And reality is that anything the benefits Black kids will likely make the schools and Oakland a better place for all kids.

The cost of performance politics

When folks sign up for “reparations” and rally for the community, its deflating when nothing actually happens.  It’s even worse, when it sows division, racial epithets come out, and we start infighting about who is authentic.  With folks with decades of service and thousands of Black children and families that would testify for them being “called out.” This has already begun.  Folks get legitimately frustrated and they don’t know where to go with that. And like so often before, we turn the hatred inward.

Similarly, when a committee comes up with recommendations and they sit on the shelf with the other piles of unfunded recommendations, folks get angry.  Meanwhile, if you are really paying attention, you see the that the director position in African American Female Achievement Initiative is gone.  A position dedicated to and serving Black girls and young women is gone.  The foster care manager positions have been cut, most of those kids are Black, and restorative justice programs are always on the chopping block. 

So, you fought for reparations, and programs for Black children are being cut and nothing new is coming.   For those folks that believe in the idea of reparations, but didn’t understand the fine print or legal context, this performance politics is deflating and draining.  It undermines faith that we can do things through the system that matter, it alienates, and it can make you angry.

We can work together on this and do something that will matter.  But for the folks supporting the current policy I have two questions.

  1. Is it legal, what has the district counsel said?
  2. How much will it cost, for how long and where is the money coming from, and since we are still under the State’s thumb, what has the County said about that cost?

If you can’t say it’s legal and you can’t say it’s funded.  It’s dead in the water. Just another distraction floating through the public consciousness, while the slave ship we call public education trudges forward powered by still uninterrupted historical winds.

(I know some will object to the language, but if less than 1 in 5 Black kids in OUSD reads on grade level, and around 1 in 9 can do math–it’s slightly higher at the charters– but the characterization applies to public education as a system, not to every school. And where are you likely to end up if you can’t read. And you know that slavery is legal as a condition of conviction of a crime. Slavery is alive and well inside prison walls, and if you cant read or do math, and you come from certain places and look a certain way, there is a good chance you will experience that.)

What do you think?

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